Director: Karel Kachyna
Screenplay: Karel Kachyna, Jan Procházka
Starring: Jirina Bohdalová, Radoslav Brzobohatý, Gustav Opocenský, Miroslav Holub, Borivoj Navrátil, Lubor Tokos
Running Time: 95 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Regular readers will know I’ve been slowly working my way through and adoring the films of the Czech New Wave and other films from the country, particularly since beginning to cover the releases of Second Run a couple of years ago. A trend in many of these films is of being banned or at least ‘shelved’ by the Czechoslovakian authorities during the country’s time as a Communist state. Second Run’s latest Blu-ray release is Karel Kachyna’s The Ear (a.k.a. Ucho) and this was no different. However, this is a more surprising addition to the list of titles swept under the carpet before the Velvet Revolution unearthed them. Initially, after watching the film, what struck me was how it was ever made in the first place. Most of the Czech New Wave films that criticised the Communist government did so in a veiled fashion, using allegory and metaphors. The Ear tackles it head-on, not hiding its target.
What I also found surprising though, or rather fascinating, was the story behind why Karel Kachyna, or more importantly writer Jan Procházka, was allowed to make the film. Procházka was a member of the Communist Party who was well thought of by president Antonín Novotný when he was in power. You might question why such a man would criticise the government, but Procházka only ever found himself on such terms with Novotný after being invited to a reception with him by mistake. The story goes that Novotný’s wife heard a man called Jan Procházka singing her husband’s praises on the radio, so invited him to the party but got the wrong man. It was a completely different Jan Procházka she’d heard. Nevertheless, the writer Procházka impressed the president at the party so was given relative freedom with his projects for the next few years. He and his collaborator Kachyna, therefore, got away with making a series of films in the late 60s that criticised the system, albeit fairly subtly. The Ear was obviously a step too far though (not helped by the fact that Novotný was replaced by Alexander Dubček in 1968) and the authorities shelved it before it was even screened. In fact, it was never publicly shown until 1989 after the Velvet Revolution, when it was rightly praised as an important film, being nominated for the Palm d’Or in fact.
After making The Ear, Kachyna was fired from his teaching post at the Prague Film Academy but carried on making films afterwards. These were mainly children’s films and middle-of-the-road work though that didn’t offend the authorities. Novotný, meanwhile, was accused by the KGB of co-heading an anti-communist group. He died soon after in 1971. One source claims this was under the eye of the security police. The pair did manage to collaborate on one project after The Ear, I’m Jumping Over Puddles Again (a.k.a. Uz zase skácu pres kaluze) though the writing was credited to someone else (like in the Hollywood blacklist era). Also, much later in 1992, Kachyna directed The Cow (a.k.a. Kráva) based on one of Novotný’s un-filmed scripts. This won the director several awards and brought him some of the acclaim and respect he’d earned with his earlier work.
The Ear remains one of the pair’s most respected films though after its eventual screening in 1989. It’s based on quite a simple premise. Senior ministry official Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohatý) and his wife Anna (Jirina Bohdalová) come home from a party hosted by the president to find themselves locked out. There’s also a car hovering nearby with its lights off. Speaking of which, when they do get in their house, their power has been cut off, as has their phone line. During the party, Ludvik found out his superior had been taken away by the authorities, so he’s worried they’re after him too. He’s not sure what he might have done wrong but proceeds to destroy all the work he’d done with his boss and frets over the shady characters hanging around outside. He also believes his house is bugged and people are listening to his and his wife’s private conversations. Anna dubs this mysterious presence in the home ‘the ear’, which explains the title.
Meanwhile, Anna berates Ludvik over paying little attention to the fact it’s their 10th wedding anniversary that day and the couple bicker and argue as the deep fractures in their marriage are laid bare. As their paranoia becomes more justified though, towards the end, the couple do find some level of solace in each other during this troubling time.
The Ear is a hugely successful study of paranoia and claustrophobia. Set over one night and early the next morning, the film never leaves the confines of the couple’s home or the party during the regular flashbacks. This traps the viewer too, cranking up the tension.
Aiding this sense of unease is the way the film is shot and edited. Using a variety of effects, such as some violently moving handheld shots and unusual framing, Kachyna and cinematographer Josef Illík never let the audience get comfortable. The way we jump between the starkly contrasting flashbacks and present-day sequences is often jarring too, having reaction shots and even some dialogue merge the two time periods together. Conversations in the flashbacks are also largely shot in first-person perspective, putting the audience in Ludvik’s shoes as well as utilising an unsettlingly unusual style.
As well as clearly criticising the way governmental surveillance creates a sense of fear in the populace, the film points a finger at the way the supposedly ‘equal’ members of the Communist state fight their way to the upper echelons. This is particularly evident in the film’s striking final ‘punchline’. It’s an ending that I didn’t see coming but is perfectly fitting and adds a clever spin on what came before.
The Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf style marital aspects are powerfully portrayed too, helping add to the film’s grip on its audience whilst also working as an allegorical comment on living in a totalitarian state.
Overall then, The Ear is a fairly sparse film with a simple concept that relies on an all-encompassing sense of paranoia and dread. It grips in an uneasy fashion before delivering a killer payoff. As such, it’s yet another Czechoslovakian gem to add to the list.
The Ear is out on 26th August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Second Run. The picture quality is very good. I did notice some clear damage and even lost frames in one short flashback sequence but perhaps this was a stylistic choice. I spotted a line on screen once or twice elsewhere too, but otherwise, the picture quality is decent throughout. I didn’t notice any issues with the audio.
A few special features are included too:
– The Ear (Ucho, 1970) presented from a brand new restoration of the film from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive
– A filmed introduction to the film by writer and critic Peter Hames
– The Projection Booth commentary with Mike White, Ben Buckingham and Martin Kessler
– The Uninvited Guest (Nezvaný host, 1969): a short film by Vlastimil Venclík
– Booklet featuring writing on the film by Peter Hames, author and producer Steven Jay Schneider and journalist and critic Graham Williamson
– New and improved English subtitle translation
– Region free Blu-ray (A/B/C)
– Original soundtrack in 2.0 Dual Mono 16-bit LPCM audio
– World premiere on Blu-ray
Second Run have developed a bit of a formula with the special features for many of their releases. They tend to include a commentary, often by the Projection Booth team, an introduction by a critic/historian and a short film by the filmmaker(s). On paper, it might seem repetitive, but I think a more fitting way to look at it would be to say that Second Run have perfected the art of supplementing the fine films they release. The commentary provides a lengthy examination of the film in question, the introduction gives a more concise overview of its background and possible readings, and the short film allows the viewer to dig deeper into the filmmaker’s oeuvre. It’s a formula that works a treat, particularly when all pieces are in place, and this is no different.
Let’s not forget Second Run’s fine booklets either, which accompany all their releases. The one compiled for The Ear is particularly good, squeezing in three essays and an interesting caption originally placed before the start of the film.