Despite a Slovakian sweep at the Finále in Plzeň this year, two Czech newcomers stood out from the crowd.
Štvanice / The Last Shift of Tomáš Hisem
Michaela Režová / Jindřich Andrš
Czech Republic, 2017
Seventy years ago this March, the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was found dead in a Prague courtyard below the window of his apartment. The circumstances of his death – which find a contemporary echo in April’s mysterious demise of Russian investigative journalist Maxim Borodin – have remained a source of intrigue and controversy ever since: Did he jump? Did he fall? Was he pushed?
The initial investigation by the Communist government (stacked with foes of Masaryk) unsurprisingly delivered a verdict of suicide. Twenty years later, during the short-lived «Prague Spring,» a second inquest ruled in favour of an accident (but didn’t rule out the possibility of murder). In the early 1990s, after the «Velvet Revolution» that led to the «velvet divorce» between what became the Czech Republic and Slovakia, this was revised to homicide.
Masaryk’s violent exit turned out to be a key turning point in Czechoslovakian history – its course might have been very different if this charismatic figure, a confirmed internationalist (his mother was American) had survived. As it was, the «CSSR» quickly adopted a hard core Stalinist tack, with dire consequences for anyone suspected of deviating – or suspected of planning to deviate – from the party line.
Perhaps the most spectacular and remarkable example of this came in 1950, when twelve players from Czechoslovakia’s ice hockey team (which had won the World Championship in Sweden the previous year) were arrested just before departing to defend their title in London. After a sham show-trial, all were given jail sentences for their supposedly treasonous plans to defect (based on overheard chatter in a pub), some of only a few months, but several of swingeing severity. Goalie Bohumil Modrý was given 15 years, forwards Gustav Bubník and Stanislav Konopásek a dozen years apiece.
«Masaryk’s violent exit turned out to be a key turning point in Czechoslovakian history.»
These sentences were later reduced by presidential pardon, but the damage was already done: Modrý served 13 years in prisons in Prague and Plzeň and as a forced labourer in a uranium mine. He died at 47, a broken man, within weeks of his release. Czechoslovakia, long an ice-hockey-crazed nation, would not win the world title again until 1972 – although they did, somewhat amazingly given the circumstances, get the bronze medal in 1955, 1957 and 1959.
New Czech filmmakers
The persecution and incarceration of the Czechoslovakian Dozen contains ample stranger-than-fiction material for a sprawling TV miniseries, but Prague-based student Michaela Režová covers the whole saga in just twelve minutes in her dazzling, informative documentary Štvanice (The Chase).
Born in 1992 during Czechoslovakia’s final months before the «divorce» became formal on January 1, 1993, Režová has graduated from UMPRUM (the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design) and DAMU (Theatre Faculty of Performing Arts), where she studied film, TV graphics and animation. Štvanice is on one level an animation, bringing history to puckish life by means of dynamic graphics, which make stimulating use of old newspaper photographs and newsreel footage, often aping the old-school iconography of 1940s and 1950s sporting media.
«Štvanice is on one level an animation.»
The clever title of her film is the Czech word for «chase» or «pursuit,» also the moniker of the beloved national ice-hockey stadium which stood on a Prague island of the same name (previously a prime site for hunting wildlife) in the Vltava River. Completed and first shown last year, it was one of two documentary standouts in a survey of student shorts shown at the Finále film festival, whose 31st edition was held from April 19 to 24 in the brewery city of Plzeň (world famous as the home of pilsner beer).
Finále, an acronym meaning «Films of Our Times» («FIlmy NAšich Let»), started in 1968 amid «Prague Spring» optimism but soon ran into political problems. It was suspended entirely between 1970 and 1989, soon after becoming a regular annual event showcasing the previous year’s Czech productions. Since 2014, the spotlight has been shared equally with Slovakian films, which in the most recent edition dominated the awards ceremony. Slovakian productions swept the board, including winning Best Documentary for Heavy Heart – Marek Šulík’s affecting, accessible study of music in the much-persecuted Roma community.
The awards shut-out has doubtless triggered much soul-searching at the Czech Film Centre, but the significant promise lurking in the student-short sidebar, at least gives some grounds for optimism. Two years younger than Režová, Jindřich Andrš studies in the documentary course at FAMU in Prague, one of Europe’s (and indeed the world’s) most prestigious film-schools. Its myriad illustrious alumni include Miloš Forman, a giant of world cinema whose death on April 13 cast a deep shadow over the Plzeň festival.
Another graduate, now teaching in the faculty, is Helena Třeštíková, whose films – many of them shot over a period of years or even decades – have established her in the front rank of European documentarians. Andrš’ approach could hardly be more different with his 29 minute underground epic The Last Shift of Tomáš Hisem. It was filmed in a single day by the eponymous Hisem, a safety inspector at the Paskov mine near Ostrava, which was closed by its owners OKD in March 2017. The opening titles inform us that on the final day of operations Hisem «smuggled in» a digital camera given to him by Andrš, affixing it to his helmet and thus allowing the viewer to experience the tenebrous sights and roaring mechanical sounds of an old-school coal mine.
A time capsule
Not recommended for claustrophobes, The Last Shift is an immersive and informative experience that plunges us into the midst of hard, grimy manual labour. The camaraderie among the coal miners, sustained by their salty, foul-mouthed humour (they are particularly amused that their efforts will be enjoyed in cinematic form by «the posh people of Prague»), is palpable. Also evident is their professionalism and their determination to maintain their productivity and standards to the bitter end: end-titles specify that 180 tonnes of coal were drawn during the course of the day.
«The Last Shift of Tomáš Hisem was filmed in a single day.»
As well as its value as a time capsule, The Last Shift of Tomáš Hisem is also bluntly effective as an elegy for a way of life which vanished from many industrial countries years or even decades ago, but which persists in certain pockets of the former Eastern Bloc. OKD (Ostravsko-karvinské doly, or Ostrava-Karviná Mines) was formed as a state-owned enterprise in 1952 via the nationalisation and combination of six companies, and returned to majority-private ownership in 1998.
Further documentaries will doubtless be made about the grim impact the closure of Paskov – and the loss of its 2,500 jobs – will have on the nearby city of Ostrava, in an area of the country where unemployment was already into double digits. Famed across the country for their toughness and resilience, the citizens of Ostrava are long inured to the vicissitudes of economic upheaval, whether of a capitalistic or communistic stripe. They dig deep.