Yesterday’s excursion into Slovakian cinema didn’t go so well for me, but today’s experience with a Czech classic was far more successful. The Ear [Ucho] (1970) captures the paranoia of life in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule and specifically with the circumstances of living under the constant threat of state surveillance where you never know which minor misstep might come back to bite you.
The film is largely a two-hander, following a night in the lives of Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohatý), the Deputy Minister of Transport, and his wife Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová). It begins with their return home after an official State function as the sober Ludvik and less-sober Anna find themselves unable to find their keys. What might normally be a fairly innocuous (and not unusual) event is swiftly invested with a frisson of menace as Ludvik gazes uncertainly at the dark car which has just pulled up further down the street. He knows that he left his keys at home and remembers his wife locking the gate as they left, so what could have happened to her keys? As he ponders how to get into the house his wife discovers the gate is unlocked – and after makes his way inside, he finds his keys sitting in the now unlatched front door. Perhaps their son was playing games before bedtime? The power is out, although the neighbours’ houses are lit as normal, and the telephone isn’t working. And people are visible at sporadic intervals observing the house from the garden and/or the street.
As Ludvik racks his memories for a clue as to what might be going on, the action periodically flashes back to the event they attended earlier that evening. Various interactions are replayed from his point of view as we gradually piece together evidence that a ministerial purge of individuals deemed unsound is underway. A military man observes that there is currently no Minister of Transport, which is news to Ludvik – didn’t he see that very man arrive earlier in the evening? Although he doesn’t appear to be anywhere now… Some of his fellow ministers appear to know more than he does, but they quickly clam up and move on once they realise Ludvik isn’t in the loop. A scene for which he wasn’t present plays out as, back at home, he presses his wife for details of her interaction with the most senior Communist Party representative – did he use her first name, which would indicate they are still in favour, or not? Much of the night is spent with feverish attempts to recall exactly what they said to whom at the party, while simultaneously dissecting their memories of which conversations they’ve had in different areas of the house, as Ludvik tries to locate any personal notes or documents which might now be interpreted as politically suspect.
The Ear of the title – also capitalised in the English subtitles – is the Ear of the State, i.e. the pervasive use of bugging devices to keep track of the citizenry. As Ludvik and Anna go back over the assumptions they have made about the locations of any potentially hidden microphones, the fragility of their conclusions becomes more apparent – some of the received wisdom about which areas are never bugged comes from people who have since been taken into detention, and how reliable can general “knowledge” about such matters really be in a highly monitored society? The choice to shoot most of Ludvik’s recollections of the State function from a first person perspective emphasises the theme of surveillance, reminding the viewer that the camera has an intelligence behind it which is paying attention to its observations. Sometimes the camera angle rotates through 180 degrees to give us a glimpse of Ludvik’s reaction to the ongoing conversations – a technique which is subverted in one instance as the camera continues to move on to the real Ludvik, revealing that the first shift showed only his reflection – and raising the possibility of another layer of observation through one-way mirrors.
As the evening of the couple’s 10th anniversary wends its way to the following morning, all of the faultlines in their personal relationship are laid bare – but where a more conventional drama might turn this night of paranoia into the crisis point which changes everything, here it comes across more as a heightened expression of the daily strains that living in such a society have put upon them as they veer between bitter personal recriminations and mutual comfort. By the time they learn what this night’s events mean to them, it’s been made very clear that even those who are successful in such a tightly policed society are wavering in a constant state of uncertainty as to their future.
Although the film was completed in 1970, it will probably come as no surprise that it was banned by the Communist Party of the day, only receiving a formal release after the regime change in 1989 (and being nominated for the Golden Palm at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival). Although there are clear signs of damage to the film stock in some sections, the National Film Archive in Prague have done an excellent restoration job. This wasn’t the first of director Karel Kachyňa’s films to be banned – both Coach to Vienna [Kočár do Vídně] (1966) and The Nun’s Night [Noc nevěsty] (1967) were removed from distribution after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. Having begun his filmmaking career with social-realist documentaries before moving into more politically critical territory, he found himself relegated to less controversial historical material and children’s movies for the remainder of the 1970s, including the beloved fantasy The Little Mermaid [Malá mořská víla] (1976). His screenwriting collaborator Jan Procházka, who wrote all three of Kachyňa’s banned films, is better known to me as the writer of Karel Zeman’s animated Jules Verne adaptation On the Comet [Na kometě] (1970). He also contributed to the production of Jan Němec’s acclaimed debut feature Diamonds of the Night [Démanty noci] (1964), which dealt with two boys’ escape from a train destined for a Nazi concentration camp. Svatopluk Havelka also deserves mention for his intriguing score, contrasting the conventional folk music present at the official function with more abstract atmospheres which help draw the audience into the protagonists’ sense of unease.
The Ear is a tense, self-contained piece which could easily have worked as a stage play but makes good use of the possibilities of film. Thirty years after initially being rescued from oblivion, Second Run made it available to a wider audience on Blu Ray – and it’s their subtitled version that is airing as part of the Czech & Slovak Film Festival of Australia. They’ve rounded out their release with the inclusion of The Uninvited Guest [Nezvaný host] (1969), a film made by one of Kachyňa’s students which was deemed controversial enough that Kachyňa lost his job as a teacher – I may just have to track that one down.