Following artistic director Karel Och’s invitation to visit Karlovy Vary in person after our recent interview for this site, I travelled by car across eastern Germany and over the Ore mountains. Entering the Czech Republic, my first encounter was with a village that greeted me like a forgotten and deserted sibling of my destination, with once-glamorous hotels now falling apart, trees and weeds steadily unpicking what remains of their structures, and the few remaining shops advertising ‘super’ cheap cigarettes and alcohol in German.
28 June-6 July 2013 | Czech Republic
By contrast, Karlovy Vary itself has preserved its dramatic and aspirational architecture and is admired by Russian oligarchs and Chinese tourists alike, who wander the clean streets holding small cups filled with the hot sulphuric waters from the spa town’s natural wells. The only glitch in the touristic image is the monolithic Communist architecture of the Hotel Thermal, the town’s one distinguishable trace of its Soviet-bloc past and the festival’s main location.
Velvet Terrorists (Zamatoví teroristi, pictured above), showing in in the festival’s ‘East of the West’ strand, provided a further insight into the meeting of architecture and economics. Directed by the Slovakian trio of Ivan Ostrochovský, Pavol Pekarčík and Péter Kerekes, it reconstructs three incidents from the reactionary ‘normalisation’ phase of post-1967 Czechoslovakia, featuring the stories’ ‘heroes’ themselves.
Stano tried (and failed) to blow up a tribune during the May Day parade because he was “fed up with communism”. He spent five years in prison and now enjoys his liberty exploding trees and throwing bombs into a lake, all in an attempt to impress his new love interest. Witnessing his absurdist fall from grace – from apparent heroism to apparent delinquency – is entertaining and poignant in equal measure. Instead of the sound of explosions, we hear cheerful bells ringing.
Second is Fero’s tale. He attempted to assassinate President Husák and tried to work as a spy for Radio Free Europe while on a fake honeymoon but, despite faxing them details of a secret rendezvous, no one showed up to meet him during his ten-day wait. Now married with children, he teaches his sons how to head spin a car and make bombs.
Vladimir, meanwhile, remains the most committed underground fighter of the three. For the film’s purposes he trains a young girl how to become physically strong enough to fight, and how to prepare mentally for a life of solitude and secrecy. There are strange echoes of Luc Besson’s Léon in this episode, which shifts from the comic mood of the previous narratives into an intense and sombre register. This highly unusual documentary-fiction was aptly awarded the Feodora Prize by European critics.
Another genre-bending work that combines such elements is The Sea (More), by Alexandra Strelyanaya. A young photographer grows tired of the Russian metropolis and decides to visit the Kola Peninsula of the Northern Sea. Together with the tomboyish, straw-blonde local Tasya, he meets the few remaining, ageing inhabitants of a once-thriving fishing community.
While Tasya rolls around in the grass or plays with wild horses, old men and women relate their traditional wisdom: how they predict weather and the seasons from the shape of the moon, why the particular growth of blueberries means a cold winter lies ahead, how to make charms against witches and pillows out of reindeer moss, and why the reindeer have disappeared (because they were sold to carry ammunition during the war). This is a stunningly photographed work mixing outstanding landscape cinematography with montages of old paintings, a beautifully balanced fusion of the topographic with the social and ancestral.
The Festival’s own ‘East of the West’ award deservedly went to Floating Skyscrapers (Płynące wieżowce), which I wrote about in my preview feature, while a special mention was given to Miracle (Zázrak) by Juraj Lehotský, which enjoyed its world premiere at KV. Lehotsky elicited a driven performance from lead actress Michaela Bendulová, whom he discovered, after a two-year search, in a youth detention facility.
She plays Ela, an energetic, angry 15-year-old who’s sent to the unit after her mother can no longer cope with her (though it’s suggested that her parent’s new boyfriend is the real reason). Scenes in this location, where she forms friendships with and finds enemies among the other girls, brim with energy and verve. Ela finds refuge in her relationship with Roby, a much older, good-for-nothing, drug-addicted security guard. She projects all her hopes and illusions onto this man, fearless in her readiness for self-sacrifice on his behalf, with perhaps predictably dangerous results.
Elsewhere, Igor Cobileanski’s Moldovan-set drama The Unsaved (La limita de jos a cerului), sharply written by Cobileanski and Corneliu Porumboiu and shot by Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), tracked a transformative rite of passage for its disenchanted 19-year-old protagonist Viorel.
Rarely has a central character been portrayed so distinctively, with the audience’s initial sympathy increasingly undercut by the realisation that he’s operating far beyond mundane, moral transgressions and routine law-breaking. While his friends and acquaintances are busy with petty crimes and betrayals, Viorel follows close behind, using his knowledge to get closer to an older girl with whom he is obsessed. By revealing so precisely the ripple effect of each character’s actions, the film brings to light Viorel’s almost psychopathic selfishness.
Papusza, by Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze (My Nikifor), received its world premiere in Competition, where it won a special mention. Telling the unique story of the first published Polish-Gypsy poet, Bronisława Wajs (aka Papusza), over eight decades until her death in 1987, it is filmed 80 per cent in the Roma language, and draws visual inspiration from plate-glass photographs of the time to convey a sense of the long-disappeared nomadic life of Gypsies in Poland: stark black-and-white shots of caravans in dusky forests and the like are stylised and granted epic scale and implication.
The film is an unusual and ambitious portrait of both an exceptional poet and her community, which struggled to survive in a hostile, racist environment. Teaching herself secretly how to read and write, Papusza was discovered by Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski, who lived with her people for two years. After he published the first comprehensive book about Gypsy life – along with her poems – Papusza was ousted by the Romas for betraying their secrets, and forced to live in solitude and poverty even while the entire country celebrated her poetic talent. (Her life was also recently fictionalised in Colum McCann’s best-selling novel Zoli.)
Despite all the aforementioned riches, the most compelling film I saw showed in the ‘Out of the Past’ series. The newly restored 1967 Soviet work Brief Encounters (Korotkie vstrechi) by Ukrainian director Kira Moratova is a great work that should occupy the highest rankings in any ‘best of’ list. Famous musician Vladimir Vysotsky plays Maxim, a geologist and the love interest of two very different women, both of whom await his return from a trip: his wife, high-ranking housing official Valentina – caught between absurd officialdom and the demands of desperate tenants to move into their unfinished housing blocks – and Nadya, the country girl who starts to work as her maid (and of whose feelings for her husband Valentina remains unaware).
Told in elliptical, free-wheeling sequences and using an editing technique – fragmentary, jarring, layering multiple perspectives – I’ve only to date seen (and very much admired) in Lucien Pintilie’s Sunday at 6, Brief Encounters is a symphonic work, marrying sound, image and provocative social observation to stunning effect (no surprise that it was banned for 20 years).
Karlovy Vary prides itself on delivering the very best Central and Eastern European work, past and present, not only to an international circuit of critics and industry guests but also, perhaps most importantly, to an impressively young and engaged Czech and regional audience. This year’s edition revealed a calibre of production that should surely inspire the future filmmakers amongst them. However, there’s no doubt all who attended have been energised and revived by the cinematic spa on offer in this most beguiling of locations.