A Czech Film Review by Lee Robert Adams
The most disturbing aspect of Karel Kachyňa’s superior paranoid thriller isn’t that the protagonists discover surveillance equipment in their house; it is that they have already made concessions in their home life in expectation that someone is listening to their conversations already. Without hiding behind metaphor or surrealism, this forceful, frightening film shows the power the communist State had over its subjects, even those in privileged positions within the regime. As a result, it was banned until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
Shot in lucid, high-contrast black and white by Josef Illík, the story opens with a bickering married couple arriving home early after a dinner event at Prague castle with various party members and dignitaries. Ludvík (Radoslav Brzobohatý) is a senior official in the government, and his wife Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová) is an alcoholic and ageing good-time girl. They can’t find their keys and spot a suspicious-looking car parked further down the street. Locked out, Ludvík climbs over the gate to break into his own house – only to find that someone has already beaten him to it. Doors are mysteriously left open, the spare keys are missing, and the electric and telephone line are both down.
Flashing back to the evening’s festivities – shown from Ludvík’s perspective – he recalls various conversations regarding his boss and other party members who recently fell victim to a political purge. People are scared to talk and he fears that his proximity to those individuals might put him next in line for a vanishing. As sinister men in trench coats lurk outside, Ludvík and his wife hurriedly burn incriminating paperwork and try to figure out what is going on, whispering anxiously in rooms that they think are off-limits for surveillance. But they soon discover the secret police don’t play fair and The Ear is everywhere …
Although there are other characters in the film, The Ear is mostly a powerful two-hander that could work almost as well on stage. Radoslav Brzobohatý, so good as the upstanding farmer holding firm against the regime in All My Good Countrymen a few years earlier, is superb again here. He plays a much more shadowy figure this time around, an ambitious, selfish go-getter suddenly wracked with fear and self-loathing. Jiřina Bohdalová is also fantastic in a furious performance as the salty, disappointed Anna. Her forthright manner also provides the film’s few brief moments of humour.
Kachyňa builds a steady sense of threat, especially in the candlelit scenes during the suspicious power outage, and creating dangerous intimacy through his use of subjective and low-angle shots. Svatopluk Havelka’s menacing score also contributes to the ominous mood. The Ear is one of the bleakest and most hopeless films to come out of the Czechoslovak New Wave, and as such, it is riveting viewing.
As their paranoia grows, so does their antagonism towards each other. Ludvík is ashamed of Anna for being a sloppy, embarrassing drunk; she is angered by his naked ambition and neglect of her. Throughout the night, the bones of their faltering marriage will be painfully exposed as old resentments and quarrels are brought up. Despite their mutual dislike, fear of Ludvík’s imminent abduction holds the warring couple together until daylight.
The screenplay, by Kachyna and Jan Procházka, is streamlined but packs in an extraordinary amount of detail. Not only do we have the paranoid thriller aspect, but we also have the breakdown of an unhappy marriage, making the film something akin to The Conversation by way of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Our initial instinct is to side with Ludvík, but as more information is revealed we come to realise that he may not be a completely innocent victim. We get hints that he might have colluded in the downfall of other party members and that his loyalties change depending on what is beneficial for his career. On top of this, we find out that he only married Anna for her money and that he’s a wife-beater, resulting in a moment of excruciating domestic abuse later in the film. Anna, for all her ranting and raving as a bitter drunk, knows exactly what her husband’s character is and she is ready to vent her fury at him as the noose tightens.