November 18, 2001|When the communists invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, it spelled the end for the Czech New Wave that had been led by such directors as Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Věra Chytilová, and Jiří Menzel. The "great harvest" of Czech cinema peaked with The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze: Ján Kádár and Elmar Klos) (1965) and Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky: Jiří Menzel) (1966), both of which received Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. Forman was nominated in this period for Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky) (1966) and Firemen's Ball (Hoří, má panenko) (1968), and would later be honoured by the Academy for his English language films One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. Ivan Passer's American-made Law and Disorder is one of the lost classics of the 1970s.
In 1994, Jan Sverák directed Jizda, a film referred to by many as the "Czech Easy Rider" because of its road movie structure and pushing of the moral boundaries for a new generation of Czech filmmakers. With the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that concluded communist control and gave birth to the Czech Republic, the Czech film industry underwent a radical change from a purely state-sponsored program to a market-driven economy. Many of the original Czech New Wave directors were unable to adjust to the new financial landscape and the revised demands that were placed on a film's subject matter to be fiscally attractive amongst a relatively small potential box office (roughly 10 million people). Those films released just after the revolution display the worst instincts of the postwar United States' B-movie culture: cheap-looking, action oriented, lascivious. Spearheaded by Sverák and Sasa Gedeon, however, a 'second' Czech new wave began to slowly emerge in the early nineties, marked by an informal, improvisational style (Sverák majored in the documentary form at University) and the focus on an intimate realism, much like the French Nouvelle Vague.
In 1996, Sverák, with his father Zdenek acting as star and screenwriter (the elder Sverák is a much-lauded writer in his homeland), won the first Best Foreign Language Oscar for the Czech Republic with his character-driven drama Kolya. Set in the days just prior to the 1989 emancipation, the film is a winning blend of the personal politics of life under siege and the relationship between a curmudgeon cellist and the young boy left to him by a Russian bride of convenience--a relationship lent resonance by the father-son partnership behind the camera. Flush with success, the two Sveráks dedicated themselves to examining the plight of Czech pilots during WWII who fled German occupation to fly with the RAF, only to return to find their homeland now under Stalin's rule. Feared as potential heroes against the new communist occupation, the pilots were placed in forced labour camps for life.
Dark Blue World took five years to bring to the screen between completing the screenplay and finding funding for the project. As Sverák's London-based producer Eric Abraham comments, "It's certainly unusual for a French, German, Czech director to have such a personal and region-specific film where you have to raise 80% of the budget from outside that particular territory. It's proof that Jan is both deeply rooted and specifically Czech, but also universally accessible. Anybody in any culture can understand his films." Sverák seems to have found a good match with Abraham, his three-time producer, retaining an astonishing amount of creative control: "We don't cut a frame without Jan's approval--the release and the marketing is also completely under his control."
Like Sverák's other films, Dark Blue World deals with the moral responsibility of freedom and, more subtly, the evolving relationship between Jan and his father from mentor to friendship. FILM FREAK CENTRAL was lucky enough to sit down with Jan Sverák to talk about heroism and the artist, family, learning to fly, and how film can change the world.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Of all your projects, Dark Blue World took the longest to bring to the screen--what was the hold up?
JAN SVERÁK: Two problems--the first was economical. We originally thought that the film would be completely English-language. After the success of Kolya we were assured from many sides that whatever English-language project we would bring, they would love to do. So we started this ambitious project and when we realized that it couldn't be done only in English, I mean the Czech pilots had to speak Czech--there was no other option lest we sacrifice reality or succumb to opportunism--the doors started to close because it was a foreign language picture. So Eric started to look for the money somewhere else and it took the time that it took.
The second problem was the screenplay, but fortunately the script evolved while we were looking for backing.
What needed fixing in the script?
We needed to make the heroes less heroic. We love these men so much that the first and second versions of the script had them as just good, we were making Armageddon--no shadings, no human characteristics--and not only can the audience not relate to someone who is perfect without any flaws, but they're really boring. So we were trying to make those people alive over the course of another six rewrites. I believe that there is always a reason for things. Maybe the money was so difficult to find because the script wasn't perfect yet.
Can you talk about the changeover from Communism in the Czech Republic in 1989, and the impact that sudden freedom had on Czech cinema in general and your films in particular?
I finished University the year before the Iron Curtain fell so all my features were made after the Revolution. What happened was that the ideological dictate of oppression was supplanted by an economical one. Before, the films were completely financed by the government where today no one is financing them. There are no producers because there are no schools to make producers, which is why my producer is based in London. It is very difficult to make films now if you're not also a producer because you have to get the money from Czech TV or from other sources and put something together. So for the older filmmakers like Menzel or Chytilová this environment is deadly. It's why they're not making movies anymore.
Chytilová did a movie last year?
Yes, but, I wouldn't comment further about that. People like Menzel gave up completely and that is why there are so many young people in the film business now because they can operate in this jungle.
You've spoken elsewhere that you intended Dark Blue World to be an examination, on one level, of heroism and the role of the hero. How much does heroism play into the role of the artist to this day in your homeland?
I think in Europe, generally, the role of filmmakers is different. The filmmaking is different--the director is the author of the picture and he feels a personal responsibility for what he's saying. It's not a studio or an industry--the market is just not so big in the smaller territories so the films are not done as big profitable things, they're done more for cultural reasons. To be more specific, in Eastern Europe, the moral responsibility of the artist is even bigger than in France or in England. I would say that France and England are already largely westernized. But in those Eastern European countries, art was one of the very limited sources of free ideas and spirit and support and hope. We were really reading difficult philosophical novels even as youngsters--Tolstoy--the art was very important during communism for people to keep some hope and go on. The moral responsibility remained with the artist.
And that idea of a moral responsibility carried over into your approach with your films?
Definitely. It's in your genes--in your bones. I feel that responsibility most strongly when I know a film's going to be seen by thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people. As a filmmaker, you need to be responsible for the messages you're pushing into your audience's heads because that message can be sick, as well.
Your 1994 film Jizda has been called "the Czech Easy Rider" in its base genre and its position at a time when your generation was testing the boundaries of freedom like Fonda and Hopper were in the late 1960s.
I feel like each film reflects a specific moment in my life. Jizda was made a few years after the changeover when everyone in the country was free and could do what they want to: it was about trying to find the borders of freedom in a democratic society. Obviously, since we weren't living in a democratic society before, and the word "freedom" meant for us "absolute freedom." The question I was trying to answer in Jizda was, At what point does freedom end--where does your freedom conflict with someone else's freedom? We discovered collectively that you can do whatever you want to do but you can't harm anyone else. That defining of borders moved into an acceptance of personal responsibility in Kolya. I was married very young and I threw myself into the position of a young father who was responsible for a child and felt that if I were to continue to be responsible in that way, I would lose my freedom forever, but if I did not accept that responsibility I would lose my dignity--so I had to answer a more personal struggle with Kolya.
So now Dark Blue World is about people who made this decision to go and fight for freedom and I wanted to ask not only why they did it but if these heroes would do it all again if they had it to do all over again. Would there be some crazy guys who would risk, or give, their lives for their country knowing that they would be punished for it--and the answer is "yes." You don't do it for country or the feeling that you're a good citizen--but that they're doing it for their own conscience--you can't do otherwise. It's come from understanding the limits of freedom to the limits of personal freedom, to the responsibility to conscience.
In screening Kolya again after Dark Blue World, I noticed that it began and ended with a shot of flight--a powerful image that you examine to its fullest extent in Dark Blue World.
After Kolya, we were flying a huge amount to promote the film in different countries, twenty-five cities just in America. We were in the air ten times a month and I said to myself, This is because we started and ended Kolya with images of flight. And now Dark Blue World is just about pilots and flying and freedom.
"In Eastern Europe, the moral responsibility of the artist is even bigger than in France or in England. I would say that France and England are already largely westernized."
You must feel lucky to work with your father, Zdenek, as he is possibly the Czech Republic's most-admired screenwriter and gave such an honest performance in Kolya.
Yes. It's a pity that there was not a role for him in Dark Blue World, he's too old now, he's 65. It's really a luxury. I know that if he wasn't my father, I would never had gotten such good scripts. He used to write scripts for Menzel--who hates me now because I stole his scriptwriter from him.
What do you think informed Menzel's work and those of the other original Czech New Wave auteurs, and do you see a similarity between their energy and the work being done by you and your peers [Vladimír Michálek, Jan Hřebejk, Petr Zelenka, Petr Václav, and Sasa Gedeon]?
I talked with my DP Vladimír Smutný once about why the original Czech Wave was so full of energy--so much of it has to do with youth and naivety. Chytilová, Menzel, Kádár, I don't know who else--it was such a short period of time before the communists oppressed feature film and these guys were gone and suddenly the directors had to be much older, in their forties, before they could make their first films under communist rule. When you're forty you're already not adventurous; you don't want to risk anything. Today, again it's the young people who are doing films. I did my first film when I was 24. It brings a fearlessness and an energy, I think. I wouldn't have done many of the films that I did but that I was so naïve--I'd be shitscared, for example, to shoot on the sea. I wouldn't do it again.
A very young Spielberg had his share of troubles with shooting on the water for Jaws.
Yes, a nightmare for him, but he had money--insanity for me who had none!
I heard how Ondrej Vetchy's lifejacket was accidentally left uninflated; what were other problems you encountered on the shoot and how long did it ultimately take?
We were on the water for five days. It's supposed to be the English Channel and we wanted to shoot grey sky and ugly weather to make it unpleasant. Otherwise we people from the continent would think: "Here's a nice holiday at the beach!" So we looked to South Africa because the prices were low and when we had summer they had winter. I didn't realize that when there were strong winds and no ships were on the sea--which is good for the camera: no ships means there's no need to erase anything--we would put the actor into the water and switch the engine off to protect him from the propeller, but once you switch the engine off the boat starts to drift and you start losing the actor. It doesn't take five seconds. You can't set up the shot, it's horrible--you can't rehearse and you can't hear each other because the wind and the waves are making such a horrible noise. Never again.
Did you ever think of using CGI or closed sets for that scene or for your aerial battles?
We tried to go that route but it didn't register as real--it's something like a ghost; you don't feel like you can touch it.
I've never been a big fan of CGI. I thought the attack sequence in Pearl Harbor looked like the world's most expensive and offensive screen saver, yet the realism of the aerial battles in Dark Blue World were for me the highlight of the film. What did you do to insure the integrity of those sequences?
We had veterans as advisors, we had the real pilots as advisors, and I myself went through the lessons of piloting. My sound recorder (Pavel Rejholec -Ed.) is a pilot so he was doing things like mounting the microphones into the Spitfires and letting the plane fly for an hour recording all the sounds and everything, asking the pilot to do things that someone without a pilot's experience wouldn't know was possible, like ramming full-speed down and then looping up without throttle just gliding until you lose the speed and start almost to fall--as you do this there is air peeling from the wings, it sounds like glass on glass--tchk-tchk-tchk. And he was recording all these things and by the end we had such an immense archive of sounds that we were able to create a rich feeling of reality.
For as visual a director as you are, you highlight music a great deal in your films: the pop soundtrack for Jizda, the musician main characters of Kolya, even the title of Dark Blue World is taken from a song sung during the course of the film. Can you talk about what music and song means to you?
As a director I like to be prepared, to have everything drawn up, storyboarded beforehand--to be control of what does what, but I don't understand music. I know that music is a series of tones, that you can map out music like images, but to me dialogue is on the paper; and images, you can describe them; but music brings something that is above, or under--it reaches parts of the brain that nothing else can, it's ineffable, a feeling you can't describe in words or image. It delivers. I envy the composers for their gift. My composer Ondrej Soukup, when he was watching the movie he said, "I can hear the music already"--it's a shortcut for emotion, an infrared beam shooting right into your understanding.
Speaking of shortcuts to understanding, Kolya affected me all the more knowing that it was a collaborative effort between father and son. You've mentioned that you and your father developed a friendship during the shooting of Elementary School (Obecná skola, 1991)--I wondered if Dark Blue World could be seen in some way as an exploration of that evolving friendship?
It's not that our friendship is growing deeper or that there are new aspects to it. After Kolya our friendship reached a certain point after which there is nothing--it's the maximum that we can reach. While we were doing Elementary School, I was still a young rabbit so it was a revelation that I could talk to my father as to a friend, that we could establish a corridor of communication as friends. During Kolya we became equals, I was mature, I was thirty-something, I had two kids--that's what I mean as a maximum of communication.
But there is another aspect of what you're asking about, I think. Before we started to think about Dark Blue World--we were chatting about friendship and women. When a woman gets between two friends, even if the friends are friends for twenty years, nothing can stop the man from loving the woman. Passion is so strong that it can break any friendship and it's sad on the one hand, but this is the basis upon which the human race perpetuates: passion is the strongest instinct. So it's scary. We wanted to explore these two friends in Dark Blue World--one older and one younger like a father and son. There is enormous trust from the young one, looking to the older as a mentor who betrays him, and we wondered what would happen between my father and myself should a woman come between us. We realized that it would be the same.
Will you always work out of the Czech Republic? Do you plan on finally doing that all English film you had thought Dark Blue World would become?
We're happy as we are now, but it'd be good if we had a wider range of themes and subjects and if the money weren't such a problem. I'd love to do a film every two years, just find something you love and concentrate on it. We'd like our next film to be English--but my father is writing a story right now that will be a Czech film. (sighs) It seems like it will either be a European movie in English, or a Czech movie in Czech: choose one.