Žert (The Joke, 1968)
Possibly the most shattering indictment of totalitarianism to come out of a Communist country – Amos Vogel
Jaromil Jireš was one of the most important directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave. He was born and raised in Bratislava, but he moved to Prague to study film directing at the famous school FAMU. His fellow students were Ivan Passer and Milos Forman. In 1968 Jireš directed his second feature film, Žert (The Joke), an intense political drama that was banned almost immediately. The film is based on the homonymous book written by Milan Kundera and Jireš cooperate with him on the screenplay’s adaptation. Through the love story of his book, Kundera, indirectly expresses his disappointment over communism. Some years later, he renounced any political interpretation of his book and supported that it is just a romantic story. Jireš exploited the period of tolerance that was offered to the artists by the Prague Spring and he dared to shoot a film so intensely politicized. The film was finished just a few days after the invasion of the Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia.
The main character is Ludvik Jahn (Josef Somr), an embittered man who is looking for answers to what happened in his past. When he was a university student in order to temper his politicized girlfriend, Markéta, he sent her a card where he paraphrased as a joke one of Trotsky’s quotes. His joke quickly caught the attention of his school’s Party committee and they immediately considered it as unacceptable and disrespectful to the Party. The chairman of the committee and his friend, Pavel (Luděk Munzar), proposed Ludvik to be expelled from the university and his definitive elimination from the Party. After these events, Ludvik ends up in a military prison where he is forced to compulsive labor in quarries for the following six years. Now 20 years later, Ludvik returns to his hometown and meets his old friend Kostka (Evald Schorm). The ultimate purpose of his visit is to seduce Helena (Jana Dítetová), Pavel’s wife, and thus avenge him even after all these years.
The plot is moving between two periods, in the past and the present of Ludvik, who is appearing without any changes during these phases. Jireš develops the film contemporaneously in both periods, so the events of today are presented as results of the acts of the past. He is using narration, voice over or just flashbacks that join Ludvik’s life. One of the most intense scenes of today is while Ludvik attending a ceremony for newborns he “returns” to his school auditorium, when the Party committee decided for him. This decision signaled for him a new birth, since he must change identity and social status in his town and his country. Just this one joke is enough to transform him from a prosperous student and a member of the Party to enemy of the country and of the democracy. The Committee, acting as the Inquisition, condemns Ludvik without giving him even the essential right to respond or defend himself. The authoritarianism of the regime will clearly be seen in this Orwellian scene, when everyone on the pretext of democracy decides unanimously to eliminate him, their former comrade. Jireš dares to depict that in the postwar Czechoslovakia, where the rampant Stalinism dominates, there is no room for dissidents and questioning Trotsky’s authority, even by way of a joke is not permissible. Ludvik should also be directly integrated into a hard program and he must demonstrate that he has complied in practice. The absurdity of the System will be even more profound by judging the characters of his inmates; among them there is a fanatic Communist who has renounced his saboteur father and a Cubist painter whose works could not be interpreted socialistically.
Ludvik’s period of punishment will undoubtedly be a catalyst in the formation of his character and will contribute to the intensity of the feeling of revenge. Furthermore, revenge will be a way to replenish his lost years, to correct his damaged dignity, to express his disgust for the Party and its exponents. Revenge will be also the way to replace his first love. Ludvik will try, through Helena, to see his lost Markéta, and simultaneously he will turn the time back to the point where he is feeling stronger to face Pavel. These two women will also play important roles in his personal failures, each one for a different reason, and they are also inseparably connected with the System that he hates so much and imprisoned him forever. Unfortunately the curse of failure still chases him even today. The world is no longer as Ludvik wanted to be, the values are no longer valid, the younger generation has overcome many of the problems of the past, and the reformers are the ruling class. What will disappoint him even more is that his views of the past today would be more than acceptable. In fact during the time that he was trying to comply with his past, he only succeeded to stay behind and now he feels old and obsolete.
Žert comes five years after the first feature film by Jireš, the lyrical Krik (The Cry, 1963), which was also the reason for having so many consecutive rejected screenplays, more than any other director. His style now is completely changed; he avoids lyricism and tries to forget everything which would reminisce his first film. The “softness” of his first directorial attempt is now converted to cinéma vérité and he wants to approach the intense hard neorealism. Nevertheless he manages at the same time to present in his images a sophisticated naive lightness which is a characteristic of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Jireš uses scenes of everyday life in order to reach a more naturalistic depiction and also avoids strong and excessive dramatization. A key role in this transition will also play the gray grainy black and white cinematography of Jan Čuřík, one of the most experienced directors of photography of the New Wave. Their collaboration extents to six more films and their highlight will be the surrealistic Valerie a Týden Divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders). New Wave is pronouncedly present in Žert since the director Evald Schorm and Milos Forman’s wife, Věra Křesadlová also appear in the film.
The subject of political trials and persecutions of the early 50’s was pretty strong and difficult for all the socialist countries of that period. The beginning of the Cold War in combination with the totalitarian Stalinist regimes created a climate of fear. Unlike Hollywood, where McCarthyism was never truly captured, Žert was filmed pretty closely to the real events, and this was a courageous act. Jireš was not the only one who raised concern on the issue, Otakar Vávra’s allegorical Kladivo na Carodejnice (The Witch Hunt, 1970) and Karel Kachyňa’s Ucho (The Ear, 1970) are also great films that are dealing with totalitarianism. After the Soviet invasion, and the restoration of the old regime, Žert fell into the category of the forever banned films. Despite the ban, Jaromil Jireš managed to keep working as a film director but he was forced to erase Žert from his filmography.