The global economic maelstrom found a way to creep its way into the 47th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival—but only for a moment. The first few days saw slower ticket sales than usual: In past years, all of the (non-industry/press) tickets for next-day screenings would be gone by 10 in the morning, while this year it was still possible to find tickets for less hotly anticipated titles the day of. And on the third day of the festival I saw Claude Miller’s The Best Way to Walk in a theater with at least 20 empty seats—which is almost unheard of for this festival. However, since July 5 and 6 are national holidays in the Czech Republic, there was a swell in attendance and the festival became its usual teeming not-a-seat-left-empty place. And so, as always, the city hosted nine days of cine-paradise.
The festival’s dedication to keeping the images of its country’s rapturous cinematic history alive never ceases to amaze. This year saw screenings of four Czech classics: Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball, Jiří Trnka’s Old Czech Legends, Štefan Uher’s The Sun in a Net, and Jaromil Jireš’s boldy anti-communist The Joke. Jireš’s film, based on Milan Kundera’s first novel, swishes back in forth in time between the ’40s and ’60s to tell the story of Ludvik (Josef Somr), a man who’s bitterly held onto a grudge from decades ago, when old friends construed a joke he made as an anti-communist attack and voted to kick him out of the university. This betrayal resulted in Ludvik landing in the (politically) “unfit” section of the army, having to work in the mines for six years. The sorrowful thing is that, while this is a film about a man’s attempt to get over the wounds of the past, by crosscutting between the two decades, Jireš, by way of Kundera, suggests that the crippling post-war communist ballyhooing and herd mentality of the ’40s, which led to the trampling of anyone on the “outside” of the accepted ideology, is far from gone—which, at the time of the film’s release, following the Soviet invasion of Prague in August 1968, couldn’t have been closer to the truth. Thus, old wounds have to heal so that new ones can be cut open.
This year’s festival also held retrospectives of Turkish auteur Reha Erdem, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s documentaries, and nine of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films (regrettably, the four not shown were Un Flic and the ultra-rare Magnet of Doom, Two Men in Manhattan, and When You Read This Letter). Melville’s first feature, The Silence of the Sea, is set during Nazi-occupied France. Werner Von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) is a German soldier who becomes a boarder in a house belonging to an uncle, who narrates the film, and niece in a small provincial town. The two of them refuse to speak to Von Ebrennac while he makes it a nightly ritual to come talk to—and at—them as the two sit by the fire. He likes to tell them about the glory the war will bring for France and Germany, as well as his great love for French literature. Von Ebrennac isn’t a Nazi, simply a blinded soldier who doesn’t realize the horrendous depths to which his fellow countrymen have fallen and the type of annihilative fate they’ve planned for France and its culture. Intermittently throughout the film, Melville lights and frames von Ebrennac’s face as if he were the cyborg out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In his first appearance on screen, the man is hit full in the face by bright light as he stands on the doorstep of the house, the light sculpting and bouncing off the angles of his face to create a harsh, almost nonhuman physiognomy. While always suspicious of this man (to the cryptic end), Melville carefully, tentatively, proposes the possibility for the healing of German-Franco relations, at some point in future history.
Emin Alper’s feature debut, Beyond the Hill (not to be confused with Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, which also played here), is a study of male obstinacy, fallibility, and the fruitless (dangerous) need to prove ones dominance. The patriarch of a family lives far out in the Turkish countryside with a family who helps him take care of his vast land. His son and two grandchildren come to visit and all of the testosterone turns the film into a standoff between male egos, boiling down to a conflict with the nomads who live over the hill—and who no one ever actually sees on screen, tellingly so. The film ends with bursts of tragedy and violence that threaten to bloom and bleed forever on, as the ironically—and jarringly—merry rhythm of a-hunting-we-will-go melody accompanies the final images.
Room 514, one of few Israeli films to play at the festival, is Sharon Bar-Ziv’s look at corruption within the Israeli army. When an Arab family files a complaint against an Israeli soldier for unwarranted brutality, no one wants to investigate the matter, and, as the film implicitly suggests, the Israeli army is all too happy to sweep such cries of injustice under the rug. Except, that is, for Anna (Asia Naifeld), who takes it upon herself to flush out the truth. Nearly all of the scenes are handheld shots of one-on-one meetings between Anna and soldiers/co-workers. Bar-Ziv foregrounds Anna’s femaleness as a central sticking point between her and the hot-headed, scared soldiers she’s interrogating by often starting a scene with the male figure off screen, the camera hovering just over his shoulder so Anna is the focus of the frame, before finally cutting to reveal the object of her aggravation. Her interrogations are frequently and comically interrupted by her mother’s phone calls, which threaten to break her credibility as an imposing source of authority, and the soldier accused of the violent acts, who derisively refers to her as a princess, suggests that he protects the country so that people like her can sleep easy in their beds.
While there’s a clear formal strategy at play, with the handheld movement of the camera often closing in on Anna’s face (especially when the film inexplicably turns to black and white for “meditative” shots of Anna washing her face or drinking coffee), sometimes the loose movements betray an ineptness of framing and staging. Nonetheless, Naifeld turns in a strong performance, and this low-budget film strives not to point fingers or cast victims and villains (the resolution of the conflict further clouding the ideas of “right” and “wrong”—and at what price—of justice), but to present a plea for the need for transparency in internal army dealings.