Somerville, Mass - What a lucky coincidence. Here I am, working on the Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe. And in the local movies theaters, there is a flurry of films coming out of the Czech Republic. In the past month, I have seen two of them: I Served the King of England and Beauty in Trouble. And just to round things out, I watched The Unbearable Lightness of Being while riding my bicycle trainer on a cold day this week. Together these three movies pretty well cover the last century of Czech history...
I Served the King of England is based on a novel by the celebrated author Bohomil Hrabel. Oddly enough, I have had this book for years. I started to read it at least once, but didn't get very far. After seeing the film, I wonder why not.
The protagonist is Jan Dite, a waiter in pre-war Prague. His defining characteristics are his diminuitive size and his good luck, which lands him lucrative jobs and lovely ladies. As Dite moves through the ranks - from back waiter in a local pub to maitre d' at the prestigious Hotel Paris - Czechoslovakia moves through history. First, the German residents are ostracized; then fortunes are reversed when the Nazis arrive; eventually the Nazis lose the war and the Soviets move in.
Czechoslovakia does not actually fight in WWII, but rather allows the Nazi occupation with varying degrees of resistance. The scene is repeated under the Soviets. All the while, our hero's life is inextricably tied to the fate of his country - even as he seems to be able (or willing) to do little to alter it.
Dite does achieve his dream of becoming rich and owning his own hotel. But under the communists, it doesn't last long. That seems to be a theme: your time on top will not last for long.
This is another novel that I have owned for years but never read (though I have read many of Kundera's other books). Only this past month, I dove into the Unbearable Lightness, and was so inspired as to follow up with the film.
The story centers on Tomas, an accomplished doctor and womanizer who lives in Prague in 1968, during the period of political liberalization known as Prague Spring. He falls in love and marries the vulnerable but devoted Tereza, but he refuses to give up his polyamorous ways. The film examines the complexity of relationships, not only between Tomas and Tereza, but also between these characters and Tomas' lovers. But all of these very personal exchanges take place against the backdrop of the historical events that unfold.
In August 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. All of the previous political reforms are undone, as the new puppet government reintroduces restrictions on press and travel. In the film, Tomas and Tereza emigrate to Switzerland to escape the crack-down that will follow. But Tereza is unhappy in her adopted home, and she returns to Prague. Tomas follows, even though it means they both must endure increasing persection - becoming targets of political blackmail and eventually losing their jobs.
The two main characters are essentially apolitical: they are concerned with their personal affairs and their professional aspirations. At one point, Tomas states bluntly and boldly "I don't care about politics." But they are thoughtful people, considered members of the intelligentsia. And they inadvertently and inevitably get drawn into the nasty politics that pervades the country.
Marcela and Jarda are a rough-around-the-edges couple, working hard to make ends meet and create some kind of stability for their two children. They get by with extra income from Jarda's chop shop. It seems like their relationship is constantly on the edge of self-destruction, with Marcela withstanding a lot of abuse from Jarda. But their sexual attraction trumps all bad feelings, and they always seem to kiss and make up - quite literally.
When Jarda is arrested for stealing a car, Marcela finally takes her cue, leaving her husband and moving in with her mother and her mother's boyfriend. The victim of the car theft is Evzen, a wealthy Czech emigre who has returned from Italy to settle his dead mother's estate. Evzen is clearly taken with his romantic image of his ancestral home, reading Kundera and showering the local people with kindness and empathy. He even takes pity on Marcela, lending her money and offering her to stay in his empty house. One thing leads to another... romance ensues...
Marcela is torn between the passion she still feels for Jarda and the peace she feels with Evzen - between preserving the family for her children, and creating a newer, healthier family for her children.
The characters in this film are brilliant and funny, each representing a different element of contemporary Czech society. The older generation is clearly the hardest hit by the collapse of communism: Jarda's mother joins a hardcore evangelical church (which seems about right, since her old religion - communism - has been completely discredited); Marcela's mother is cynical and single-minded, constantly encouraging her daughter to get her hands on Evzen's money. Both are delusional about their relationships and their country.
At the other end of the scale, the children are impressionable but adaptable. They move freely back and forth between their grandmother's cramped apartment and Evzen's Italian villa. They learn to swim; they learn to speak Italian; they are the next generation - the future of Czech.