Political satire can take many forms, but sometimes all that’s required is some actors, a few tables and chairs, and a patch of woodland.
That’s all Jan Němec needed for A Report on the Party and the Guests, his abstract but high impact critique of life under communist rule in Czechoslovakia. It was considered scathing enough that it allegedly had Antonín Novotný, the president at the time, climbing the walls.
The concept of A Report on the Party and the Guests is about as simple as it gets. A group of middle-aged, middle-class lovers are having a picnic in a peaceful glade on a hot summer’s day. There is plenty of food and drink to go around, the weather is warm, and the friends are enjoying each other’s company. After freshening up in a babbling brook, the group are accosted by a shady little man in squeaky shoes – we later find out his name is Rudolf (Jan Klusák) – and his thuggish-looking cohorts.
Rudolf and his gang bundle the picnickers away to a clearing where he subjects them to an impromptu interrogation. The group are separated into men and women and locked up in an imaginary prison marked by a line drawn in the dirt, with two rocks representing a door.
The picnickers uneasily play along with Rudolf’s game for a while, with Josef (Jiří Němec) acting as their spokesperson. Conversely, Karel (Karel Mareš) gets fed up and grumpily storms off, crossing the line of their prison. In response, Rudolf instructs his mob to chase after the escapee and torment him a bit.
The game is interrupted by a suave older gent in a shining white jacket, known only as the Host (Ivan Vyskočil). He apologises for Rudolf’s actions and charms the group, especially the ladies, and invites them to his birthday banquet by the lake. The picnickers are quickly intermingled with the other guests when they are all assigned seating away from each other. Any complaints are forgotten with the plentiful food and drink on offer, and Josef is rewarded for his attempt to parley with a seat at the head table.
As the celebrations progress, it soon becomes apparent that one of the picnickers, a taciturn man who quietly refused to suck up to the Host previously, has discreetly left the party…
A Report on the Party and the Guests is a surrealist allegory similar to Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, which also featured bourgeois partygoers who were captive to boundaries they couldn’t fully define. While the picnickers aren’t in any overt danger, there is a nagging sense of threat as they find themselves irresistibly carried along by the whims of their sinister hosts.
The absurdist screenplay holds a mirror to life in his homeland, and the film feels simultaneously obtuse and on-the-nose. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to realise that the party represents the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and the guests are Czechoslovak society as a whole. It damns the guests as much as the party by showing how easily resistance can ebb away under such circumstances.
The women in the group are easily pacified by the Host’s charms and bribes of food and drink. Josef seems happy with his seat at the top table, representing the members of Czech society who were rewarded for toeing the Party line. Karel grumbles and moans but soon backs down when it looks like he’s going to get into further trouble. Tellingly, after he breaks the imaginary boundary of their prison and gets a little jostled by the mob, the other picnickers are suddenly very wary of crossing the line.
The only one who shows any real commitment to escaping the situation is the quiet, nameless one. He is played by director Evald Schorm, whose earlier film Courage for Every Day was greeted with similar disapproval by the president. When he disappears, the Host sends out the dogs and a search party, hinting at far greater dangers for determined dissenters.
It is a film of ideas rather than performances and visuals, but Jan Klusák stands out among the cast as the dimwitted, insinuating Rudolf. Klusák was a composer with a sideline in film acting and also had a notably creepy role as a rapist priest in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Primo New Wave cinematographer Jaromír Šofr shoots the film efficiently. He frames early shots of the first picnic spot as a typically Czech paradise and follows up with some striking compositions at the Host’s banquet.
A Report on the Party and the Guests is one of many fascinating examples of how filmmakers of the Czechoslovak New Wave used their art to criticise the regime. As with many of its contemporaries, the film was eventually “banned forever”. Like all the best satire, it is specifically about one thing, yet universal enough to have something to say about modern society, too.