The Wikipedia article on Czech cinema contains a long list of names, many of whom are associated with the Czech New Wave, but Pavel Juráček’s name is not among them.
This is a pity, for despite having directed only two full-length films in his career he was instrumental in the making of a great many more, principally as writer or producer, many of which are now regarded as classics, and his story is as heartbreaking as that of Czechoslovakia itself. Postava k podpírání, despite running a lean 38 minutes, could arguably be regarded as the single greatest work of the Czech New Wave. Certainly it is representative of everything that is great about Czech cinema in general and Pavel Juráček’s career in particular.
The film opens with a very long shot looking up a cobbled street in Prague. A group of children cross the street led by two nurses, but all we hear is the sound of marching jackboots. They disappear from sight swiftly followed by a squad of Nazi stormtroopers marching in the opposite direction. No sooner have they left than a funeral cortege appears, crossing the street in the direction taken by the party of children. Among the mourners is a man dressed in white, apparently confused, who extracts himself from the cortege and walks towards us. We follow him as he wanders along a street and through an open doorway, finding himself in a long corridor filled with the discarded detritis of Communist rule under Stalin. He asks everyone he sees for Joseph Kilian but no-one seems to know where he might be found.
…which becomes more and more Kafka-esque…
Later, while wandering the streets he comes across a Cat Rental Agency. On a whim he decides to rent a cat for the evening, but when he tries to return the cat the next day he discovers that the shop is no longer there. He spends the rest of the film desperately trying to do the right thing, which becomes more and more Kafka-esque as he is sent from government department to government department, at no time being given any clear answers, all the time worrying about the ever increasing fine he is accruing for the late return of the cat. Eventually he sees a man he recognises as Joseph Kilian in a bar. The man denies this and leaves. He too is clutching a cat.
The shooting style changes part way through to one more clearly inspired by the cinema of the French New Wave with jump cuts, games of rewind and repeat and freeze frames over stretches of off-camera dialogue. It is breathlessly inventive thoughout and it is possible to argue that the changing styles of visual narrative on offer here underscore a reading of the film as an allegorical account of the changing history of the creative arts and life under communist rule in Czechosolvakia. As with much of Czech cinema these allusions are made with subtlety and charm and never in an overt or heavy-handed manner. It doesn’t take a doctorate in psychoanalysis to work much of this out but it probably helps to know a little of the country’s history.
…an explosion of inventive and hugely original film-making…
The former Czechoslovakia was a relatively young country, having been formed in 1918 after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. During 1938 and 1939 the fledgling nation found itself gradually subsumed by Germany under the Third Reich. After finding itself liberated at the end of World War II Czechoslovakia enjoyed a brief spell of democracy under a Communist led coalition until 1948 when the Communist Party seized total control of the country, remaining in power until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. However there was a brief period between 1963 and 1968 when the rules were relaxed, prompting an explosion of inventive and hugely original film-making, now referred to collectively as the Czech New Wave.
Between 1961 and 1970 Pavel Juráček made two features and co-directed two shorts but he also wrote the screenplays for a further nine films made by other film-makers, one of which, Daisies, directed by Věra Chytilová, is itself regarded as an outstanding classic of the Czech New Wave and was a direct influence on Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating. Other films written by him in this period include Late August at the Hotel Ozone which depicts a grim post-apocalyptic future in which all the men have died off, and Ikarie X1-B, a fascinating outer space science fiction film, which among other things incorporates a dig at American capitalism and nuclear proliferation in a scene where his characters enter a long lost US space ship in which float the corpses of fat cats in dinner jackets and a series of nuclear devices, each one labelled “Tigger Fun.”
…fell foul of the communists…
Czech popular culture contains a refreshing anti-authoritarian streak which enlivens much of its literature and cinema and allows writers and film-makers to slyly mock their rulers without being too obvious about it. Miloš Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball, for example, depicts a bunch of well-meaning old men who couldn’t organise a successful party to save their lives. It was widely interpreted as a dig at the communists, although Forman himself has stated that it was inspired by a visit to a real Fireman’s Ball, an experience he found so appalling that he felt he had no choice but to base a script on it. The Soviet invasion of 1968 took place while he was out of the country securing distribution funding and he decided to remain in exile.
The new communist rulers of Czechoslovakia took extreme umbrage and banned the film forever. It is now of course regarded as a classic. Similarly Jan Němec’s The Party and the Guests from 1966, in which a picnic in the countryside is taken over by a series of shadowy authority figures, also fell foul of the communists, who promptly banned it, but was a hit outside Czechoslovakia. Pavel Juráček executive produced Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String, about a series of colourful characters forced to live in a scrapyard, which was also banned as an allegory of life under communist rule.
…he was instrumental in the making of some of the greatest works of Czech cinema…
In 1968 the Soviets, upset at what they saw as a far too lenient regime, invaded Czechoslovakia. Many film-makers found themselves forced to embrace communism in order to continue to be allowed to make films, but Pavel Juráček did not. His outspoken criticism of the regime in this film and a handful of others (in particular his 1970 film Case for a Rookie Hangman, a very loose and quite surreal adaptation of parts of Gulliver’s Travels) saw him blackballed and banned from working in cinema. He lapsed into alcoholism and died just before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which might have allowed him to return to work, but for one all-too-brief decade he was instrumental in the making of some of the greatest works of Czech cinema. Thanks to his son Marek (born in 1970, the same year that his father’s film career came to an end) he did manage one last hurrah when his diaries were adapted into the 2002 film The Key for Determining Dwarfs or The Last Travel of Lemuel Gulliver.