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▶ Servants is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema and in virtual cinemas from 14 May.
Servants is a black-and-white film in every sense, a monochrome exploration of the paranoid, late socialist milieu of 1980s Czechoslovakia. It depicts the flailing brutality of a failing state, perpetrated against its own people. ‘If you aren’t with us, you’re against us’ is the phrase left unspoken in this often wordless film, wherein the smallest act of protest or abstention is treated as an unforgivable transgression by the Communist regime and its secret police.
After a mysterious opening scene that foreshadows violence to come – an impeccable film noir moment, with a body dumped under a bridge as a cargo train rattles overhead – Servants begins as two young seminarians, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovič), enter a theological school. Quiet and seemingly submissive, they slot right into their class, donning black cassocks that contrast with the stark white walls of the seminary.
Through furtively distributed pamphlets and fliers, we learn, along with Juraj and Michal, of the political context surrounding this seemingly closed-off institution. Unwilling to allow religious freedom (only the impression of it), in 1971 the Communist state created an organisation called Pacem in Terris – in English, ‘Peace on Earth’, ironically enough – in order to insidiously influence the Catholic church and clergy. In response, underground churches formed, hoping to maintain religious independence and avoid state interference.
Almost monolithically representing the Communist powers oppressing the seminary is Doctor Ivan (Vlad Ivanov, best known as the doctor in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007), who fondles his stethoscope as he enacts state violence and wears a smirk that implies perverse pleasure. As with all of the film’s characters, little if any of his past is made known; the closest he gets to introspection is when he examines the worsening skin condition crawling across his torso and spreading to his arms.
Within the seminary we are introduced to three members of the teaching staff, each serving, in a symbolic manner, as an example of an individual’s relationship with the state. The Dean (played by Vladimír Strnisko) is both head of the school and a leading figure in Pacem in Terris, unperturbed by the potential conflicts this may cause. The Doctur (Tomáš Turek), the youngest and most junior of the staff, is part of an underground church and, when approached, works to bring Juraj into the organisation. The Spiritual (Milan Mikulčík) is the victim of blackmail by the state, reluctantly forced into cooperation.
Life inside of the seminary is depicted as isolated and austere. The students are almost entirely silent, and when the teachers speak their words are solemn and their breath visible from the cold. The seminarians are almost never seen outside of the building, the hexagonal pattern of the windows reminiscent of chicken-wire cooping them up.
This sparseness of language allows for striking and suggestive compositions by cinematographer Juraj Chlpik, whose work recalls the simple but profound beauty of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films. In a short, cutaway scene, black-robed students quietly and joylessly circle a ping pong table, batting the ball back and forth; in another, they pass a football around in a tiny, awkwardly-shared courtyard, the camera observing from above. The only fun in their lives is, oxymoronically, state-sanctioned.
But whilst some of the film’s most evocative moments are brief and expressive, and emotionally rather than narratively significant, there is simultaneously a political thriller plot developing. As student protests escalate from leafletting to hunger strikes, the state response shifts from surveillance to violence. The students are left to decide the personal sacrifice they are willing to make, albeit with the threatening euphemisms of Doctor Ivan discouraging dissent.
The future may be theoretically open, but there is a profound hopelessness in the film’s imagery. When the students are asked to hand in their typewriters to the state police following the production of an unwelcome pamphlet, they proceed in a funereal march towards an open-bed truck, throwing the machines onto the back into an untidy pile. There’s no expectation of the possessions being returned.
Just as there is no future, there is also no past. The nearest we come to learning any character’s backstory is when Michal is shown his secret police file, his number on the front and a photograph paper-clipped to the corner, but it’s never opened. When Juraj is given a physical exam, we learn that he failed it previously, but aren’t told why. The past is for the state to know, not us. But in Servants a past isn’t important, or even necessary. These aren’t fleshed out characters; they are symbols, oppressed and broken down into what the state wants them to become.
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