The European Union Film Festival 2017 in Toronto included two films noteworthy for their effort: The Teacher and The wolf from the Royal Vineyard Street. In the first case, the effort is worthwhile; the second effort is questionable.
The Teacher (Ucitelka; Slovak Republic-Czech Republic co-production 2016; directed by Jan Hřebejk)
Setting: Middle school in Bratislava (1983-84 and 1991-92 school years): classroom events and a principal-parents meeting. Also scenes in the teacher’s and some parents’ apartments.
Plot: A teacher (widow, local chair of the Communist Party, played with naturalness and ease by Zuzana Mauréry) demands, by various means, the services of her pupils’ parents: styling her hair, fixing her fridge, baking and cooking food for her, cleaning her apartment, etc.). In return, the parents who comply with her request are told to pass on to their child the exercise he or she will be tested on so they can study and receive good grades. Students whose parents do not bow to the teacher’s requests receive failing marks no matter how hard they study. The lack of academic success of their children makes for the parents’ frustrations and abuse. Things would have evolved this way forever had it not been for the fact that one female student tried to commit suicide because her father did not agree to be the go-between the teacher and her sister living in Moscow. The girl’s parents attempt to sign a petition to have the teacher removed, and the principal calls for a general meeting with all the parents to ascertain the level of corruption and abuse of power. The meeting’s discussion (as well as the silences) demonstrate three reactions to the teacher’s behaviour: 1. fearfulness for possible repercussion if the petition is signed (social/economic: demotion from work, political: on the black list of the Communist Party, academic (children not allowed to continue their studies). Therefore, these parents do not sign the petition. 2. support for the teacher who is deemed of high moral standing – and these parents are vehemently against signing the petition. 3. animosity against the teacher and decisiveness to sign the petition in order to set things right. Most parents fall into the first category, but after the meeting closes, they too sign the petition which successfully removes the teacher from her position, to the great sigh of relief of all the pupils. The final scene – the academic year 1991-92 after the change from socialism to “freedom” – gives us the same classroom, different students, but the same teacher, undemoted, but using the same strategy to extract help and continue her abuse of power.
Comment: A number of themes run through the film, but clearly, the most obvious is abuse of power from a teacher, who should be a paragon of virtues. Corruption runs rampant regardless of the political system one lives under, and it touches, in this case, the most vulnerable: the children who are helpless to fight against this injustice. One should never assume that teachers act morally. It must be added that those who lived under Czechoslovak socialism see in the film almost a well-made documentary of the panic fear and distress brought about by abuses in the name of political power. The feeling powerlessness against moral abuse, exploitation, corruption, as well as the mental state of loneliness since no one else wants to help, are portrayed masterfully in the film. It is true that others simply see a black satire, but a worthwhile satire nonetheless.
Noteworthy lines: at the beginning, the teacher, by way of introduction, says: “I will be teaching you the Slovak language, the Russian language, and history”. And at the end, she repeats with due modifications: “I will be teaching you the Slovak language, English, religion, and ethics.”
The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street (Vlk z Královských Vinohrad; Czech Republic 2016; directed by Jan Němec)
Settings: 1968 Cannes Film Festival, Prague 1968 Soviet Invasion, California and Long Island 1970s and 1980s, 2000s Prague
Plot: A Czech film director, nicknamed John Jan, “supported” by the socialist government, is up for the 1968 Cannes film prize, which he does not win since the festival closes early. Exhibiting the well-known cliched desires of all movie makers (fame, flashy cars, company of female escorts, champagne, rebelliousness), he achieves some semblance of fame by documenting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and sending the film abroad (some archival footage is used). His attempts to shoot a film based on Kafka’s Metamorphoses is thwarted by the Czech military. He ends up in California shooting wedding videos, mostly views of the seascapes and couples and guests getting drunk. He asks Ivana Trump to put in a good word to her husband, not yet President; his request is denied as Mr Trump does not support movie making; but he sends John Jan a copy of his book. He has a heart attack which is “cured” by a sex session. He is taken advantage of by a young woman on Long Island. He returns to Prague by getting a special permit to “see the death of communism”. The final scenes, round images of nature in Vinohrady (now a trendy residential neighbourhood), get him back home untouched by all the experiences he lived.
Comment: What can one say about self-reflecting and autobiographical film about a director? That despite the effort by the now recognized Czech artist Jan Němec (called also “diamond in the rough”), or maybe because he passed away just before finishing the shooting, the film falls short of expectations. It is true that obtaining fame and respect is not easy. It is true that film directors love what they do. So these things do not need an autobiographical filmic representation. What is not true is that movie audiences want to see rebels everywhere and at all costs. And then, being a “rebel” nowadays, in the postmodern era, does not add much to our understanding of the world, and, above all, it does not contain the seeds of transformation of those values which, in fact, are wrong.
One tidbit I did not know: Jean-Luc Godard was not against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.