The Party and the Guests

‘When one lives in a society that is essentially not free, it is the obligation of every thinking person to attack obstacles to freedom in every way at his disposal.’ Jan Němec

O slavnosti a hostech*, to give the film its Czech title, isn’t that widely known outside of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and when it is discussed one fact is always mentioned.

But first a little background.

By Eastern Bloc standards, the Czechoslovakia of the mid-1960s was relatively liberal, though censorship in the arts was still very common.

President Antonín Novotný took a keen interest in this and is said to have been left apoplectic with rage after being given a private screening of Němec’s film, demanding it be withdrawn from circulation. Yes, that fact that is always mentioned when The Party and the Guests is discussed is its history of suppression.

The ban inevitably soon came into force – along with Vera Chytilová’s Daisies – at a meeting in 1967 of Czechoslovakia’s National Assembly. It was declared – as if this was a bad thing – that neither film had anything ‘in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideals of Communism.’

Never mind, as the then-country attempted to navigate their ways towards a more democratic future during the Prague Spring, the film was once again made available for screenings. It was even selected to compete for the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, but due to the student and worker revolt in France, the festival was curtailed and then officially called off to show solidarity with the protesters.

Back home, three or so months later, Warsaw Pact troops and tanks rolled into Prague, reforms were crushed, and the country entered a period dubbed ‘normalisation’ by the ruling Communists.

For Němec, normalisation meant his film was banned for a second time.
And when I say banned, I don’t mean for a specific period of time after which the ban might be re-considered like the first time around. It went on to became one of four films (along with The Fireman’s Ball, All My Good Countrymen and End of a Priest) to be officially ‘banned forever’.

Idealogical orthodoxy wasn’t Němec’s thing, and he’d been considered an enfant terrible since his days at the lauded FAMU film school. Now he was being regarded as ‘politically undesirable’ and believed to be biggest filmmaking threat to the government and Communist system.

Blacklisted, he had his passport taken away from him in 1969 and he wasn’t given the chance to direct another feature film in his homeland until the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution.

The Party and The Guests -The Picnickers

The film is based on a novella written by Ester Krumbachová, a fascinating figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave, who at this point was married to Němec, both being credited with the screenplay.

This is a relatively short drama, just sixty eight minutes – few Czechoslovak New Wave films ever outstayed their welcome – and the plot is basic.

The following summary does contain spoilers.

A party of four men and three women are spending a pleasant afternoon enjoying a picnic on the edge of a pine forest. The weather’s good, as is the food, and the wine, which has been chilled in a nearby stream.

This could almost be some socialist realist propaganda borefest glorifying the wonders of Communism but it soon becomes apparent that it really isn’t.

Their little idyll is just about to turn sour. Very sour.

Jan Klusak as Rudolf

Some men, led by an obsequious looking figure in plus fours, accost and manhandle them. These men begin to play some kind of game. They won’t say who they are. They might resemble an absurdist street gang – if such a idea existed – but it’s easy to assume to represent the secret police.

We learn the leader is called Rudolf and everything about him seems slightly ridiculous. He takes great pains to appear polite but his faux-friendliness grates – like Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.

A table is laid out and the party are told to step inside a circle, marked out on a gravelly piece of land. Fed up with an inane interrogation, one man Karel dares to defy the interlopers and strides away. He’s roughed up.

Another man arrives who is obviously in charge of the interlopers. Dapperly dressed, he has a goatee beard like Lenin’s, and he apologises for the behaviour of his men. He invites the party to join an open-air banquet to celebrate a wedding and his own birthday.

The_Party_and_the_Guests_-_The_Banquet

One of the original group, who remains nameless but is played by well known dissident Evald Schorm, says little and displays no willingness to join in the charade. At an opportune moment, he vanishes, much to the chagrin of his wife.

The Lenin lookalike may appear jovial, but he is a stickler for order and the fact that they are a guest short makes him snap. A solution is suggested. The party guests could break from their meal and attempt to track down the missing man and bring him back, despite his wishes.

The_Party_and_the_Guests_-_Lenin_lookalike

A hound is given a sniff at a slipper he has left and it picks his scent. The search party sets off in high spirits.

The other original picnickers decide to stay on, on the pretext that if their (former) friend should return on his own accord, they should be there to greet him.

They chat and eat, much as they did earlier and seem content with the situation.

And that’s about that. On the surface.

The Party and the Guests (1966)

The Party and the Guests comes over like a Luis Buñuel film with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

The ruling regime clearly took it as an anti-Communist allegory, although Jan Němec has never claimed it was specifically aimed at them. Maybe it’s as much, if not more, of an attack on ordinary people who, rather than oppose the system, passively make an accommodation with it for the sake of a quiet life, like most of the characters here seem happy enough to do.

It makes you ask yourself the question of how you would behave under similar circumstances. Compromise and conform or confront?

No trailer online but here’s a clip:

If you like The Party and the Guests, you might also like Němec’s first feature Diamonds of the Night, the story of two young Jewish boys who escape from a Nazi transport train. This is another uneasy watch with some startling imagery – including a hommage to Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

* In America the film is known as A Report on The Party and the Guests

Advertisements