Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Life as a composition

BIO / Recovering a silenced composer.

Kapr Code screens in the 2022 Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival «Czech Joy» section.

The documentary-opera Kapr Code is captivating in its form and content. Lucie Králová’s work always reflects her joyous creativity, but this time she surprises us by introducing a new playful way of storytelling. Humour runs throughout her film, which lightens up the mood of what actually is a tragic story of a silenced artist. By making this film, Králová brings awareness to a whole generation of artists who were censored and erased by an oppressive regime despite their earlier fame and contribution. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, their names remain forgotten as no one bothered to resurrect them.

Jan Kapr (1914-88) was one of the most prolific composers in Czechoslovakia after the Second World War. His political songs became national hits for organized mass movements. «I don’t write a note that would not serve the cause of the Socialist» was his motto. Kapr received an honourable Stalin award and gained a leading role in the field of music. It was during the oppressive 1950s that Kapr had a change of heart when his close friend was unjustly convicted of high treason. Kapr tried unsuccessfully to leave the Communist Party, claiming that political meetings gave him migraines. Threats by the secret police convinced him to reconsider his resignation. In appearance, he was a powerful public figure that had legitimized the regime through his art. On the inside, he was in despair, fighting for his artistic convictions.

When he wrote an open letter in protest of the 1968 invasion, he was expelled from the Party and permanently banned from public life. Censored and isolated from his colleagues, Jan Kapr became disillusioned with Socialist Realism, a style he had earlier embraced that idealized socialistic life. In his search for a new truth, he turned to the expressionist music of Arnold Schoenberg and his «Twelve-Tone Technique» (1923). This form is often called the «20th-century revolution in composition». Jan Kapr developed further the modernistic serial procedures in his desire to truly express his inner thoughts and feelings without illusion, disguise or conventions. He was extremely bold in his experimentation and replaced traditional rules of melody and tonality with dissonance.

Jan Kapr was never to have experienced his music being played in his own country, but he managed to smuggle his work out to the West, where his compositions were performed in major symphonies in New York and Hamburg. In his own country, his name and achievements vanished from public awareness for good – until now.

Kapr Code Lucie Králová
Kapr Code, a film by Lucie Králová

The treasure of a private archive

It was by chance that Lucie Králová discovered the works of Jan Kapr. She came over to the private archive his family had been guarding for the past forty years in his old Prague apartment. The material consisted of 150 compositions, 12 kilograms of letters and six and half hours of private 8 mm film footage, which revealed that Jan Kapr was also a diligent filmmaker. The films consist of sketch comedies where he and his closest family played themselves. Apparently, the more disillusioned and troubled Kapr was in real life, the more satire and playful madness appeared in his comedy sketches. The autobiographic material reveals a kind-hearted man capable of self-reflection and irony. They shine with humanism even though they were made in one of Czechoslovakia’s darkest periods in history.

Kapr Code Lucie Králová
Kapr Code, a film by Lucie Králová

New epoch, new music, new forms

In an interview in Variety, Králová states that she «didn’t want to make a historical film with a closed message. I wanted to make him relevant …[and] attract a younger audience». Instead of commenting and reflecting on Jan Kapr’s work, she chooses to apply his form in her film composition and montage. By adopting the same kind of playfulness and humour in the film’s editing, Králová’s film language directly correlates with the expression of Jan Kapr’s latest work. It follows the rules of expressionist music, which – as defined by Wikipedia – features «a high level of dissonance, extreme contrasts of dynamics, constant changing of textures and angular melodies with wide leaps».

This form is often referred to as the «20th-century revolution in composition».

The narrator takes the shape of a «sprechgesang», which can be translated as spoken singing in which «pitches are sung, but the articulation is rapid and loose-like speech». Králová created the script with the award-winning theatre director Jiří Adamek Austerlitz who is internationally recognized for his postmodern musicals. Together, they extracted words and phrases from Kapr’s hundreds of letters and assembled them in an order that tells the story’s bare bones. It works brilliantly.

Is she making fun of the composer when she pulls out the most pathetic lines from Kapr’s love letters and uses them repeatedly in the libretto? At one point, the conductor and choirmaster – who also happens to be Jan Kapr’s last living student – Petr Fiala, abruptly exclaims: «Wait a minute, it is going to look like we are making a joke out of this. This is not a parody. The singer has to sing with conviction and movement!» These Brechtian-inspired interludes have a humorous effect and bring a much-needed intermission with silence and civil voices. They provide a detachment we need to be able to absorb a story that could otherwise easily feel overdramatic.

Králová’s commentary of Jan Kapr’s life lies in the visual cinematography. She contrasts then and now by revisiting places that appear in Kapr’s 8mm black and white footage. In the archive material – which comes truly alive due to sensitively added sound effects – we see Kapr at his secluded wooded cottage, hidden away in a lushes forest valley by the riverside. As so many others citizens disdained by the repressing state system, Kapr escaped to the countryside and recreation. His shots from this place are filled with summer, shimmering light, laughter and lovingly family ties. When Králová visits this remote place, it is in the early fall and silence. It is cool in the morning, and the dampness rises from the water. The simple cottage is still secluded. The furniture is placed in the same order as we saw it in the old footage – only now it is all dusted down and desolate. The place looks as if it is still waiting for its inhabitants to put some life back in it again, but there is no one that could fill their space after their departures.

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Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.

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