Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Liberating the time

Milada Součková: The two experimental shorts by Andrea Culková revive the writing of the relatively unknown avant-garde Czech poet.

The two experimental shorts by Andrea Culkova revive the writing of a relatively unknown avant-garde Czech poet, Milada Součková, whose experiments in language and perception of historical time indicate a compelling approach to the rising challenges of today’s world, the individual responsibility for common problems in particular.

Milada Součková
Milada Součková PC: Literary Archives of the Museum of Czech Literature

Citizen of the World

Czech avant-garde writer Milada Součková was born in the last year of the 18th Century. After graduating from Charles University in Prague, she attended the University of Lausanne, and there she met the linguist Roman Jacobson, who highly appreciated her early experimental writing. She was a member of the Prague Linguistic Circle and, after World War II, appointed cultural attaché at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington. After the Czechoslovak coup d’état of 1948, she remained in the United States, where she taught Slavic literature at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Berkeley, and worked as a librarian at Harvard’s Widener Library.

She wrote her first literary pieces under the influence of modernist and surrealist writers and focused on the stream of consciousness. The most distinctive features of her writing were the experiments with language and nonlinear streams of thought and the exploration of the intersections between personal memory and important historical events. Součková’s collected works (prose, poetry, and historical and literary essays) have recently been published in Czech by two leading publishing houses, ERM and PROSTOR, and several are available in digital form. Still, she remained somewhat unknown to the general public.

The most distinctive features of her writing were the experiments with language and nonlinear streams of thought and the exploration of the intersections between personal memory and important historical events.

H*art On

This began to change in 2016 when the documentary filmmaker Andrea Culková created a feature film H*art On, an experimental documentary that was also acknowledged by Modern Times Review. The film is loosely based on the love story between Součková and her husband, Zdeňek Rykr, the Czech painter, journalist, and scenographer who committed suicide in 1940 to avoid falling into the hands of the Gestapo. Recently, Culková also created two short experimental films that are directly based on the texts written by the avant-garde author. Besides, these two films introduce a formal experimentation on acoustic and visual levels that complements the linguistic innovation of Součková’s writing.

Historical Monolog Andrea Culková
Historical Monolog,, a film by Andrea Culková

Then and Now

Mluvici Pasmo (The Talking Zone), the title of the experimental poem Milada Součková wrote between 1939 and 1940, refers to the avant-garde poetic genre and the radio of that period. The poem is a typical modernist text, dissolving the romanticist notion of *the* author in the figure of the spokesperson, defined as «a man with a pen in hand,» but with no name: «Nobody remembers my name, / the dead world lives in my blind eyes.» It is structured as a polyphonic composition, and the poetic effect of the words is just as important as their meaning. The topic is the dying of European civilisation and high expectations for future generations. Andrea Culková chose the text as the background for the Occupy movement and its protest against the rising social and economic inequalities.

«A new age is dawning on Earth. (…) Burn, the ancient primeval forest of cellulose, burn along with your customs and ceremonies (…).» Součková’s words, written in 1939, hover over the landscape shots, ancient monuments, fire, details of flowers, and human faces. After a while, they concentrated on the large city square in front of a National Bank, where demonstrations were taking place against the bank’s policy. The relevance of the old text increases as the merging of contemporary protests and Součkova’s linguistic experiment multiplies further. Now and then, they physically meet in the same space and time as the actress, reciting Součkova’s writing, joins the protesters, and the voice of the actress/poet mixes with the voices of the activists and the police.

The other experimental video, Historic Monolog (Historický monolog), is based on the text by Milada Součková from 1954 and on the theatre performance Historic Monolog (Confession of President Emil Hácha), directed by J. A. Pitínský. Emil Hácha, the president of Czechoslovakia from November 1938 to March 1939 and the president of the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia after Hitler seized the country, is one of the most controversial figures in Czech history by many considered a traitor to the nation. In Součková’s text, Hácha’s confession is listened to by Tomáš Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1935, known as the founding father of Czechoslovakia. The confrontation of Hácha with the legacy of Masaryk’s moral authority is further complicated by Hácha being played by an actress and silent Masaryk being played by an actor. During the film, the two transform into a loving couple going through various difficulties. Gradually, she, the wife, morphs into the author, Milada Součková, talking to her husband, Zdeňek Rykr.

The topic is the dying of European civilisation and high expectations for future generations.

For alternative histories

These experimental films continue the legacy of Součková as the avant-garde poet and revive the relevance of her innovative approach to memory and history. She was blurring the border between personal and collective memory and portraying the close ties between the «I» and the «we» – between the subject and the community they live in, but also in terms of the specific historical events that constitute a backdrop for presenting Součková’s own version of history and the microcosm of the characters in her stories. This shift from an external to an internal perspective drew attention to the most intimate, hidden dimensions of reality and opened up space for new versions of history, for the potential, alternative histories, and introduced a nonlinear notion of time, all of which is particularly relevant in our epoch.

On the one hand, our understanding of history results from the transformations introduced by the ‘nouvelle histoire’ during the 1970s. Unlike the traditional conception of history, which focused on politics and «great men,» one master historical narrative, and the old belief in objectivity, this new approach, also known as cultural history, history of representations, and ‘histoire des mentalités,’ concentrated on everyday life and common people, on history as experience and the importance of individual memory. On the other hand, the abandonment of linear thinking has more direct material grounds, that is, digital information storage. Writing on paper as a traditional way of storing information evolves linearly from the more to the less distant event and imposes a linear perception of time. When stored with digital technologies, on the contrary, the information is available at the same moment, regardless of how distant the events are from the present. This led to what is generally perceived as the loss of historical thinking, but it simultaneously strengthened different perceptions of time and of the role of individuals in history and inspired the ideas of alternative, plural histories. All this has already been announced by the avant-garde texts such as those by Milada Součková.

The Talking Zone Andrea Culková
The Talking Zone, a film by Andrea Culková


With her experimental films The Talking Zone and Historical Monolog, Andrea Culková contributed to a thick web of associations – between words and images, experimental and art cinema, document and fiction. Linking past and present is a part of this larger web, in which past and present, and how they are related, have been questioned too.

In A Brighter Tomorrow (Il sol dell’avvenire, 2023), the Italian director Nanni Moretti directly asks the audience to imagine how a different reaction of the Italian Communist party to the Soviet Union army’s violent crush of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 might have changed the future of Italy. The fantasy TV series Vortex (2022) follows the attempts of the police officer, whose first wife was killed 20 years ago, to change past events to save his first wife without compromising the life he constructed in the years following her death. The impossibility of altering the course of time is a recurring theme in the films of Gaspar Noe, most notably Irreversible (2002). He is considered controversial, but the discontent caused by his films is, to a significant degree, a result of his magnificent capacity to portray the pain caused by the impotence of human beings when facing the irreversibility of their actions. This, of course, directly evokes personal responsibility in any of us. It was never a purely theoretical thing.

Facing the reality today, from climate disasters to world conflicts, a sense of personal responsibility is a common challenge to us all. The daring examinations of the avant-garde poet of the first generation, reworked through the perspective of the experimental filmmaker of today, timely bring the historical and political importance of this challenge into the spotlight.

The essay is written by:
Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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