When people find out that I write about Czech movies, one of the questions they sometimes ask is: why are so many Czech films about the Communist era?
The example I always use is this: I’m from England, and such a large part of our national identity is defined by World War II, which lasted six years. Three iconic events from the conflict – Dunkirk, the Blitz, and the Battle of Britain – are still touchstones in our collective conscience and influence how we think of ourselves as a people. Even seventy-odd years later, nostalgia for the war played a part in the campaign to leave the European Union.
And, of course, we’re still making successful movies about it.
Czechoslovakia, by comparison, spent over forty years in the clutches of a Communist regime, only to regain independence relatively recently. It’s little wonder that the period still exerts such a powerful hold on the Czech national psyche and is ingrained so deeply in the country’s culture. Not only that, but forty years is a long time, so even films that aren’t directly about it still have life under communism very present as background scenery. We can probably expect Czech cinema to go on exploring those decades of subjugation for many years to come.
Perhaps the finest film I’ve encountered about the subject so far is Vojtěch Jasný’s wondrous All My Good Countrymen. Despite clocking in at under two hours, it unfolds at the pace of a good novel and feels epic in scope. It’s a visually and aurally splendid film that is packed with memorable performances and food for thought, a powerful ode to the strength and resilience of the director’s compatriots.
It’s also an immensely courageous and compassionate piece of cinema. Courageous in the sense that it was released in the year of the Prague Spring, yet doesn’t hide behind satire or absurdism – it’s a frank, straight-up condemnation of the dangers of communism; and compassionate in the sense that it treats characters who fell under the regime’s influence all too easily with tenderness, or even love.
The film opens in a lightly comedic register during May 1945, after the closure of WWII. We’re in a small Czech village and church organist Očenáš (Vlastimil Brodský) is presiding over a joyous hymn celebrating the freedom brought by Red Army tanks. Out in the fields, two young boys find leftover weapons from the conflict and terrorize the local photographer (Ilja Prachař) with live rounds. With a striking bit of editing, local thief Jořka (Vladimír Menšík) upgrades from a stolen bicycle to a pilfered German motorbike to a joyridden German staff car. Straight-shooting farmer František (Radoslav Brzobohatý) has a narrow miss with a landmine while tilling his field, and carries right on ploughing.
While there are many other people in the film, these four guys are part of seven central friends, rounded out by good-natured postman Bertin (Pavel Pavlovský) who will meet his end thanks to a strange turn of fate; tailor Lampa (Václav Babka); and tortured musician Zášinek (Waldemar Matuška), whose Jewish wife was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz.
Skip forward to 1948 and the early days of Communist rule. Some of these friends have readily signed up as members of the party, eager to enjoy the perks and the power. Očenáš the Organist is the ringleader, and his first job is organizing a farmer’s collective. They target the town’s richest landowner first, driving him out of his home and divvying up the loot.
Persuading the other farmers to join the collective is a long, slow process of intimidation, threats and extortion. The townsfolk kick back, issuing their own counter-threats and even assassinating one of the party members. The farmers, led by the noble František, resist signing over to the collective. However, the weight of the regime grinds them down over the years and one by one they relent.
The villagers are played by a large cast of superb actors, each creating memorable characterisations within a terrific ensemble. Jasný spent almost ten years working on the script, which may explain why there are so many vivid characters in such a well-populated movie. These roles feel real and lived in.
That being said, the main character is the community itself, and the film shows how the pernicious influence of communism poisons it, sets friend against friend, and robs people of their livelihood and a meaningful future. The tone darkens as the film progresses, ending on a poignant note – almost a wake-up call for the director’s real countrymen, one that wouldn’t become a reality for another three decades.
All My Good Countrymen is a rich and complex film, one that I’m sure will reward repeat viewing. While the story is simple enough, the themes and characters linger. Jasný has a natural understanding of the rhythms of rural life, where people’s connection to the land is tangible and runs many centuries deep. His vision is enriched by Jaroslav Kučera’s stunning cinematography, which captures the spirit of each season in beautiful rustic hues; and Svatopluk Havelka’s marvellous score, which forms an almost symbiotic link with the images on screen.
As you might expect, a film that took such a direct potshot at the Communist regime was banned “forever” by the authorities. Jasný subsequently went into exile, picked up Best Director at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, and had the last laugh – he and many of his excellent cast and crew lived long enough to see his masterpiece’s final note come to pass.
Bold and lyrical, All My Good Countrymen is essential viewing for anyone interested in exploring the films of the Czech New Wave, and those who want to find out more about life under communism.
All My Good Countrymen is playing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing.