1st - 26th February 2006
Pavel Jurácek (1935-89) was one of the most incisive and imaginative members of the generation of young artists that brought about the Czech Film Miracle in the 60s. Although he is less familiar to modern audiences than Milos Forman or Jiri Menzel, he was both an accomplished screenwriter and provocative director. Moreover, his involvement with the Kinoautomat project suggests that he was also a technical and stylistic innovator, who sought to rouse the viewer from the passivity of spectatorship and encourage them to participate more actively in the narrative process.
The reconstruction of the Kinoautomat for the first time in over 30 years is perhaps the highlight of the National Film Theatre's tribute to this visionary filmmaker, whose commitment to poetic and political truth curtailed his career and caused him to be exiled to West Germany in the late 1970s. But the programme also contains several shorts and features that have all-too-rarely been seen in this country.
Jurácek trained as a screenwriter at the famous FAMU film school and his versatility is readily evident in the contrasting projects he produced for a trio of classmates. The story of a supposed coward who defrauds the local quarry to provide the resistance with the means to sabotage German trains, Zdenek Sirový's Keeper Of The Dynamite (1960) subverted the proscribed socialist realist approach to films about the Second World War, while Vera Chytilova's Ceiling (1961) showed a model becoming disillusioned with her glamorous lifestyle and rediscovering herself in the countryside to criticise the patriarchal establishment's imposition of its tastes and attitudes upon the female population.
The study of a model citizen's disconcerting encounter with reality, Black And White Sylva (1960) began Jurácek's association with Jan Schmidt. Three years later, they co-directed Josef Kilian, a denunciation of the Stalinist cult of personality whose depiction of urban alienation, bureaucratic intimidation and the isolation of the individual renders it is decidedly Kafkaesque. A strong sense of the absurd dominates the opening sequences, as Jan Herold seeks both to hook up with his eponymous acquaintance and secure official sanction for his inability to return a rented cat to a shop with strict rules that has now mysteriously disappeared. But the humour becomes increasingly oppressive, as Herold's efforts to be a decent citizen result in him being interrogated like an enemy of the state.
The End Of August At The Hotel Ozone (1966) is set in an equally forbidding world and again centres around a fruitless search. Just as there was no guarantee that Kilian even existed, so the bid by eight women roaming a post-apocalyptic landscape in the hope of finding survivors with whom they can repopulate society feels like a hopeless quest. But, what makes this already brutal film all the more dismaying is the fact that their only chance of success depends upon an old man intent on guarding the last remnants of civilisation - a broken television, a gramophone with only one record and a fragment of newspaper.
Endangered communities were also central to two of Juracek's highly allegorical scripting assignments. Set in Moravia during the Thirty Years' War, Karel Zeman's The Jester's Tale (1964) is a gloriously stylised blend of live-action and animation that considers the attitudes of conscripts fighting for a cause in which they have little conviction. Contrasting the incompetence of the command with the shiftlessness of Matej the recruiting officer and the innocence of Petr the callow peasant, this visually stunning and politically acerbic tale is absolutely mesmerising. Shooting forward 538 years, Jindrich Polak's Voyage To The End Of The Universe (1963) contains echoes of Stanislas Lem's Solaris, as the crew of the 22nd-century spaceship has to confront its own rivalries and demons, as well as physical dangers as it journeys across Alpha Centauri to the Green Planet.
The perils of communal surveillance are exposed in Hyynek Bocan's No Laughing Matter (1966), in which art historian Karel Klima becomes a target for the ire of officialdom and his neighbours after he refuses to read a manuscript submitted by an amateur academic. Adapted from a short story in Milan Kundera's collection Laughable Loves, this is tantamount to an antedote to the optimistic unity depicted in Jean Renoir's portrait of tenement living, Le Crime De Monsieur Lange (1935).
Juracek only got to direct two more features before he was suspended by the authorities for refusing to accept the suppression of the Prague Spring.
Bearing the influence of Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, Milos Forman's Loves Of A Blonde and Juracek's own experiences in the forces, Every Young Man (1965) was divided into two segments. Achilles' Heel follows a private and a limping corporal, as they wander a city's streets having adventures that actually amount to nothing, while the titular second section suggests that life back in camp is no more structured, as the troops drift through army manouevres, lectures on nuclear fallout and a social evening with utter indifference. While not wholly convincing as a unified satire, this is still a film of memorable moments, including the sight of a tank lumbering through a country village and the isolation of the single female attending the camp dance.
A Case For The Young Hangman (1969) also drew on a literary source, the third book of Gulliver's Travels, although the influence of Kafka and Lewis Carroll is as much evident as Jonathan Swift. The action opens with Lemuel Gulliver crashing his car in the middle of nowhere into a hare dressed in human clothes. On waking, Lemuel finds himself in Balnibarbi, but soon becomes seduced by the promises of a better life on the floating country of Laputa. However, amidst episodes from his past and the harsh realities of his new circumstances, Gulliver's hopes are dashed - as were Juracek's, as the film was banned for its implication that anything could be superior to existence within Czechoslovakia.
However, this association with Swift's satire stuck and formed part of the title of Martin Sulik's The Key To Defining Dwarfs, or The Last Travel Of Lemuel Gulliver (2002), a reverie based on Juracek's journals that uses home movies, archive footage and Marek Juracek's impersonation of his father to recreate both the director's mindset and the mood of the nation during the epochal months of spring 1968.