Slovaks in Czech films: Mistresses and the others

It has been almost twenty years since the division of Czechoslovakia. With no border controls between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and thousands of Slovaks living and working in Prague, one might wonder what do Czechs know (and want to know) about their former fellow-citizens? Having a look at Czech films is a good way to find out.

Foto: Creative Commons/ Miss Cigarette

It is maybe depressing to say so, but there is very little interest in Slovakia and Slovaks amongst  contemporary Czech filmmakers. Czech culture, more than most, is almost obsessively concerned only with itself. While Czech filmmakers are more or less willing to accept some inspiration from the West, they are practically uninterested in anything that comes from the “East”. Most contemporary Czech feature films are made within a fairly incestuous, self-absorbed Prague culture.  Contemporary Czech filmmakers are often incapable of looking beyond their comfortable middle-class Prague existence. Practically no films are being made about genuine problems of contemporary Czech society. It is not particularly surprising, then, that there is very little in contemporary Czech films that relates to today’s Slovakia.

Defenceless mistresses

Slovak characters do occasionally occur in contemporary Czech films, but they are heavily stereotyped.  There is a long tradition in Czech feature films to include young Slovak women who usually play defenceless creatures, or mistresses of Czech men. Often these Slovak women are abused and only sometimes do they manage to fight back.

The tradition of these characters existed even before the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Thus, for instance, in a thriller by Petr Šícha, Silnější než já (Stronger Than Me), made in 1990, a young female Slovak teacher becomes the target of an attack in the basement of a hostel for apprentice electricians. The film is based on a real-life story, which took place before the fall of Communism, in 1986. The warden of the hostel is a cynical, selfish hedonist. He persuades the Slovak woman not to inform the police of the attack because of the damage it would do to the reputation of the hostel.

It is perhaps not terribly surprising that, under pressure, the girl becomes his lover. This is a gross dereliction of professional etiquette: it is typical that, in the morning, the submissive girl makes breakfast for her “lover”; in his view, she is after all a woman, so she has to cook and obey. Nevertheless, in this instance, the Slovak girl goes to the police and reports the attack in the basement of the hostel (to which the warden reacts with the words “You bitch!”).

The character of a pliable Slovak young mistress occurs also in the slightly confused film Křížová vazba (Cross Binding, 1990) by Antonín Kopřiva.  Here, thirty-year-old tiler Luděk Krejza tries to cure his complex of inferiority in the arms of a young Slovak lover, a secondary school teacher. Krejza hates the fact that his father-in-law is extremely powerful and much more influential than himself. The father-in-law learns about Krejza’s Slovak lover, seduces her and makes her his mistress. The Slovak woman is a totally passive character in Křížová vazba.

Another young Slovak mistress, Daniela, is featured in Milan Cieslar’s film Jak chutná smrt (The Taste of Death, 1995). The girl is Slovak perhaps because one of the main characters in the film, the unscrupulous entrepreneur Karel Kainar (Juraj Kukura), is also Slovak and he has brought her from Slovakia to Prague. Daniela sleeps with Kainar and also with Kainar’s son Robert. The frequent stereotype of postcommunist Czech feature films, where a person has sex with one’s partner and then also with his or her parent, reappears in Jak chutná smrt. Needless to say, this theme only reinforces the passive image of the “young Slovak mistress” in Czech films.  A Czech married man has another passive Slovak mistress in Petr Václav’s film Paralelní světy (Parallel Worlds, 2001).

Yet another Slovak mistress occurs in Radim Špaček’s recent film Pouta (Walking Too Fast, 2010), a variation on the well-known German film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006), directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.  As seems usual in contemporary Czech cinema, the film deals primarily with complicated erotic relationships. Pouta takes place in Prague under communism. The dissident Tomáš Sýkora, although he is married, has a young Slovak mistress. The secret policeman Rusnák falls in love with the girl. This young Slovak woman serves as a symbol of purity and innocence, at least for the Czech secret policeman. The Slovak girl is the only character in the film who does not use anyone, and this is why she becomes a symbol of good for Rusnák. Rusnák begins to protect the girl, but he fails to win her overand commits suicide.

Otherness, purity

There are several instances where a Slovak theme or a Slovak character signifies distance, obstacles, foreignness or otherness in Czech films. Thus in Michaela Pavlátová’s film Nevěrné hry (Faithless Games, 2003), which primarily deals with the predicament of a woman who is expected to conform to the primacy of her husband, the husband is a Slovak composer, Peter Szabo, who has decided to settle in a village not far from Štúrovo on the Slovak-Hungarian border. His Czech wife Eva, a concert pianist, feels cut off in the Hungarian-Slovak village. She could have a career in Prague; instead, she looks after the household and occasionally plays for local weddings and teaches piano to neighbourhood children. Similarly, in Kousek nebe (A Piece of Heaven,  2005), a film about Stalinist oppression directed by Petr Nikolaev, the two main characters are held in a prison in Slovakia, far away far from their native Bohemia.

In Vít Olmer’s films Playgirls 1, 2 (1995), based on the novel by Vladimír Páral, in the environment of overwhelming Czech corruption, manipulation and immorality, the character of  Slovak dentist Daniel Dalík is a symbol of otherness and purity. Dalík saves one of the Czech  “fallen women”. Klárka, one of the prostitutes in Playgirls, falls in love with him, becomes pregnant by him, leaves the Playgirls massage parlour, where she worked unwillingly, and goes off with him to an idyllic life in the country.

On the other hand, the unscrupulous manipulative behavior of another Slovak symbol of otherness, self-obsessed “famous Slovak film director” Robert Karpatti, who became a persona non-grata in Bratislava for staging a controversial “Slovak dream” project there (a reference to a controversial documentary Český sen [The Czech Dream], 2004, directed by Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda) and therefore had to move to Prague, causes the death of an innocent person in Hrubeš a Mareš jsou kamarádi do deště (Hrubeš and Mareš Are Best Friends – Come Rain, Come Shine, 2005), a film directed by Vladimír Morávek.

Slovaks, the exotic

Slovak matters denote exotic eccentricity also in films such as Drahomíra Vihanová’s Zpráva o putování studentů Petra a Jakuba (The Pilgrimage of Students Peter and Jacob, 2000) and Jiří Vejdělek’s Roming (2007). In both films, the “foreign” Slovak location is connected with Romany culture. In Vihanová’s film, two Prague students interact with exotic Romany culture in Slovakia. In Jiří Vejdělek’s film, a group of Czech Romanies travel to Slovakia to an ethnically idiosyncratic Romany settlement.

In Benjamin Tuček’s film Děvčátko (Girlie, 2002), the Slovak otherness is a symbol of loneliness. In this film, two Slovak women live in Prague in isolation. A mother and her seventeen-year-old daughter Ema, live together in a high-rise flat. In private, they speak Slovak, in public Czech with a foreign accent. Being Slovak means being uprooted and isolated in this film, which has a tragic ending.

In a couple of films based novels by the Czech “commercial author” Michal Viewegh, Slovak mountains appear as an exotic, luxury holiday destination. In Román pro muže (A Novel for Men, 2010), directed by Tomáš Bařina, an affluent, corrupt, and successful Prague judge  buys a prostitute and a week’s skiing holiday in a five-star hotel in the High Tatras in Slovakia for Bruno, his brother, who is suffering from an incurable disease and will die in a few months. A Slovak luxury skiing resort is also featured in Filip Renč’s film  Román pro ženy (From Subway with Love, 2005), which is also based on a Viewegh novel.

Remnants of Czechoslovakism may still be detected in at least three recent Czech films. Tobruk (2008), directed by Václav Marhoul, features the adventures of a Czechoslovak military unit stationed in North Africa during tthe Second World War. Czech and Slovak soldiers are treated equally here. In Alice Nellis film Výlet (Some Secrets, 2002), a Czech family with Slovak roots sets out to Nové Mesto nad Váhom in order to bury their grandfather’s ashes there. The film is primarily about the relationships within a particular family unit, but the family straddles both the Czech and the Slovak culture. Its roots are Czechoslovak.

Similarly, an attempt at symbolic Czechoslovakism is made in Jan Hřebejk’s parable Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000), a film ostensibly set during the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, where the three main characters are, symbolically, a Czech, his Slovak wife and a Jew. It is a pity that the Slovak wife speaks Czech with a Slovak accent rather than Slovak in the film. Maybe the filmmakers decided that having a character speak Slovak in a Czech film would be unacceptable, seven years after the division of Czechoslovakia. Highly controversially, several recent Slovak films have been dubbed into Czech for distribution in Czech cinemas, thus destroying their intrinsically Slovak nature.

Jan Čulík

Jan Čulík

is Senior Lecturer in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. His monograph “A Society in Distress: The Image of the Czech Republic in Contemporary Czech Feature Film” has just been published by Sussex Academic Press.